I interviewed 62 People Leaders about their goals and challenges in building a culture of inclusion and belonging. Here’s what I learned.

Munir Pathak
Aug 8, 2019 · 6 min read

I’ve spent most of my career thus far in the analytics world, transforming data into actionable insights to drive business decisions. When I set out on my entrepreneurial journey, it was natural for me to start with data. I had the passion to solve a real problem, and I had an idea for a product that could effectively do it. What I didn’t have was the data to really understand the value my target customers were seeking in this particular problem space. So, I decided to do what came naturally; gather the data I needed by speaking directly with my target customers.

Upon starting this process, I quickly had 2 realizations:

  1. People Leaders are having real challenges, and they’re eager to talk about them openly to arrive at solutions.
  2. Almost every person I met with was data-driven and actively seeking more insights into their people operations to drive better decision making.

In the context of this article, People Leaders are those in a senior leadership role that carry the responsibilities of Human Resources and People Operations within their organization. Depending on the size of the company, this includes roles such as: VP of People, VP of Culture, VP of HR, VP of People Ops, Head of Diversity & Inclusion, CHRO, CEO, and COO. In order to protect the privacy of those I interviewed, I have not included any individual or company names. However, I will share that they represent growth stage tech companies from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco in the range of 50 to 2,000 employees.

Belonging and inclusion can seem like buzz words these days, but at their core, they are key factors in employee experience, performance, and retention. A sense of belonging means that people can bring their full selves to work, without feeling like they’re a different person from who they are at home, and without fear of different treatment or punishment. Inclusion is the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.

Enough resources exist on the value and benefits of inclusion and belonging, so I will not go into detail in this post. Rather, I’ll point to a reference from Culture Amp that dives deeper into these concepts and the research surrounding them.

Key Takeaways

Interviewing People Leaders shone a light on the many goals and challenges they have in building a culture of inclusion and belonging. Among the many takeaways I had from these conversations, the top 3 themes that arose were 1) breaking down silos, 2) living the values, and 3) fostering psychological safety. I’ll dive into each one in more detail below.

Breaking Down Silos

Whether they exist within or across departments, offices, or remote work environments, silos present a major challenge. People Leaders see silos as a top enemy in improving communication, collaboration, and trust across the organization.

When a company is in its earliest stages, communication tends to flow more naturally between the few people who make up the team. The flow of knowledge and the ability to collaborate across different functional areas are critical to building a product, validating fit in the market, raising funds, growing a customer base, and every other aspect of building a startup. Relying on open communication to happen organically as the organization grows is a recipe for failure, and it is difficult to rectify. People Leaders need ways to make open communication systematic and natural in order to break down or prevent silos from forming in the company.

Some People Leaders have implemented solutions such as regular all-hands meetings, open door policies with leadership, cross-functional project teams, remote-friendly meeting practices, and more opportunities for social interaction with colleagues (e.g. happy hours, lunch and learns, community service activities, etc.). All of these solutions have worked with varying degrees of success, but it is clear that a combination of actions must be taken to foster a communicative, collaborative environment.

Living the Values

Startups need to be nimble and adaptable to find product-market fit and grow a scalable business. The ability to adapt relies on everyone at the organization being aligned. Clear, practiced company values align employees with the company at large amidst the iterations of change required of a growing business.

Defining company values enables People Leaders to build a culture with intent, but the work does not end there. Values are useless as words on paper; the true power of values come to light when they are lived.

People Leaders are challenged with ensuring that values are defined and lived within the organization. Everyone within the company should know the values, align with them, practice them, and recognize when they are being practiced by others. When leadership lives the values, that sets the tone for the entire organization to follow. Publicly recognizing colleagues who are living the values positively reinforces the alignment the organization needs to be successful.

Fostering Psychological Safety

To be your true self at work, you need to feel safe being so. If you don’t bring your true self, it means you don’t bring your true ideas, perceptions, challenges, or opinions. Companies where employees feel excluded or lack a sense of belonging are losing out on the potential for better business outcomes.

A company that fosters psychological safety can have access to the full potential of ideas and creativity brought by each individual. It allows each person to voice their perspectives, disagree comfortably, provide more meaningful feedback, and build trust within the organization.

Creating an environment with psychological safety is a key challenge for many of the People Leaders I spoke with. Some of the key actions they’ve taken include leadership transparency practices, two way feedback with leadership, and creating opportunities for colleagues to build more authentic relationships with one other. All of these actions require removing the veils of the transactional nature of work to enable everyone to understand each other better as people.

Actionable Insights Drive Change

I interviewed 62 People Leaders from growing startup companies to learn about their goals and challenges in building a culture of inclusion and belonging. I learned that the challenges are numerous, but by enabling People Leaders to leverage actionable insights, these challenges can be addressed to build better workplaces.

The key themes challenging People Leaders today include breaking down silos, living the values, and fostering psychological safety. A common thread across all these themes is facilitating relationship building between colleagues to improve communication, collaboration, and trust across the organization. These themes have informed the product we’ve built at Swirl to enable more authentic connections at work.

By understanding the value that my target customers are seeking, I have been able to create an offering that meets their needs as well as the needs of the people they serve. Swirl equips People Leaders with the ability to systematize relationship building, the opportunity to spark conversations beyond the barriers of initial unconscious bias, and the power of actionable insights to measure and improve perceptions of belonging and inclusion at their workplace. Our early data shows that we’ve been able to improve perceptions of belonging for our customers by 11% in just 3 months.

I’m looking forward to continuing conversations with People Leaders as our collective knowledge of belonging and inclusion continues to grow.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into any of the contents above, my interview process, or would like to learn more about Swirl, I’m happy to chat. Please feel free to reach out to me directly on LinkedIn or at munir@tryswirl.com.

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Building Inclusive Culture

Munir Pathak

Written by

Industrial engineer, epidemiologist, biostatistician, data scientist. Passionate about building technology for social impact. Founder @tryswirl tryswirl.com

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Building Inclusive Culture

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