How to build an Inclusive Team Culture

Build an inclusive team culture by focusing on Moments of Truth.

Moments of Truth are the critical interactions with your team members where you come across as inclusive, or not.

inclusive team
Photo by Abby Kihano on

Over the last few decades, the D&I mandate has been obsessed with 2 key ideas; metrics and unconscious bias. Neither have actually helped. Why? The core reason is that both high level metrics declaration by companies and unconscious bias, fails to enroll and hold leaders accountable for what is within their control. They are not given enough practical tips, simple ideas and conscious actions that can help them take control and drive results. Unconscious bias and grand metrics disempower rather than empower leaders at the frontline. Diversity and Inclusion runs the risk of becoming a rhetoric, rather than focus on conscious real actions.

Inclusion is about Moments of Truth

i.e., every critical interaction with an employee where you either come across as inclusive, or not. Inclusion is an issue that needs the big organizational declarations, policy gestures, but more importantly the daily hand to hand combat in the trenches, where it lives or dies – we have to therefore, equip our leaders to do that consistently. 

This article is about the practical tips to be inclusive at every Moment of Truth for our team members.

Your calendar shows how inclusive you are, or not.

One of the biggest indicators of unconscious bias, is where, and with whom, leaders spend their time and energy when interacting with their team. Who you make time for, and how much, says much more about how you value diversity, than any grand rhetoric ever could.

Imagine this: Your boss has multiple 1x1s and informal chats with some of your peers, but not you; goes out for lunch with only some of your peers, but not you; hosts dinners and invites only some of your peers and their families and is close to them, but doesn’t know yours; goes out for drinks after work with only some peers, but not you; or is out golfing with some, but not you; or has such a close relationship with a peer that is godmother to their child, but not with you. While you know your manager is extremely busy, you see them make time for your peers… How would that make you feel?

As a leader, it is immaterial if you like some on your team more than others, or if you have worked with some all your life, unlike the newcomers. There is an impropriety, if your time and energy investment is very imbalanced.

Fairness and equity are the foundation of trust. When we skew our time and energy investment to those we like or have great affinity /relationships with, it breaks that trust, feels unfair, is the opposite of inclusion and makes people feel like they don’t belong.  

Try this : 
Calendar analysis

Review the 1x1s, social engagements and work events (during non COVID times) for last 3 months. Where and with whom did you spend the most time? Did you reschedule- who had the maximum reschedules? Did everyone in your team show up to these? If not, why not (real reason)? Make an action plan that helps you spend time more equally across your team.

Informal chats

Reflect on the week. With whom did you spend the most time? Next week – plan to stop by and check in with every team member (especially valuable in these times)

Maximize Power of 1x1s

1x1s are the most effective forum a leader has to engage and inspire their team, individually, one member at a time. Many leaders squander this opportunity, unfortunately. They do not have a regular cadence of 1x1s with team members, or they do not have impactful or effective 1x1s.

Here are 5 ways to make your 1x1s with your individual team members impactful:

Establish a cadence

As a leader, it is critical to have regular connects with each team member individually, at a similar frequency. The experiences of diverse employees tell us; a) Their leaders tend to go with “Come find me if you need me” type of 1x1s, rather than regular calendared meetings, and b) 1x1s with their leaders get rescheduled or cancelled a lot more than their peers. It tells the diverse team member that they are not a priority, and that they are valued less than others on the team.

It is not just about work

1x1s are meant for to-do lists and progress reviews, but so much more. They provide an opportunity to get to know each other, bond, build rapport and trust, share experiences and learnings, provide feedback, highlight unique contribution and value add to the team, as well as to stretch, challenge, coach and develop. 

Help discover their leadership brand

A great leader is one who asks probing questions that help their team members reflect and learn more about themselves. Helping a team member discover what they love to do, their personal purpose, what motivates them and their leadership brand that makes them unique, is the greatest service a leader can do for their team. 

Career conversation

Learn the career aspirations of each team member and help them craft a roadmap (flexible) to get there. Focus on learning and development experiences, rather than positions, levels and titles.

Seek feedback and how you can support

Ask your team member how you can work together even more effectively, and how you can help them do even better. Ask them for ideas, and ask them to hold you accountable to your commitment.

Try this:

Create 1x1s for your team with these best practices:

  • Set up a cadence (no less than 12) and put them on the calendar. 
  • Set aside a minimum of 6 of those for more coaching and development conversations (as above). Ideally, try to keep the work and development conversations separate. 
  • Plan the list of topics you want to cover through the year, and share it with your team. Empower them to plan how and when they want to discuss those topics.
  • Have a clear agenda for each 1×1 (empower your team members to  decide the agenda).
  • Seek feedback on how you can make the 1x1s more meaningful for them. Ask how you can help.

Build a Team culture of inclusion 

The core tenets of an inclusive culture are psychological safety, fairness, equity and cohesion.

Here are the 3 ways to create an inclusive team culture: 

Create a safe, judgement free space for real dialogue 

The D&I conversation, is often not a conversation. It is people talking  AT each other, with neither getting through to the other. Leaders, who enable and equip their teams to have real dialogue where they are open to learning, are the leaders of the future. Leaders of the future have to be integrators. They have to navigate the complexity of our times, understand and appreciate different contexts and perspectives, help teams and organizations connect the dots, and find common ground.

Leaders have to build cohesive teams by ensuring:

  • Team members know each other’s stories, values, what matters most, motivators and triggers (pet peeves)
  • Team invests time to go through the stages of teaming – forming, storming, norming, performing.
  • Clear goals, expectations, interdependencies, and ways of working to achieve them
  • Team processes their issues and challenges together in a structured way, by looking at Context, Intent, Action, Result, Impact.
  • Freedom and psychological safety to ask questions, be curious, understand and appreciate challenges faced by diverse talent, explore and question biases  without judgement. 
  • Team understands and practices how to be an ally

A cohesive team that respects each other is highly likely to be not just an inclusive team, but a high performing one. 

Make the Power of One Team as a collective, obvious 

There are 3 key ways to manifest the Power of Team:

  1. Set common goals that incorporate each team member’s piece, and hold the team accountable for it. This unlocks collaboration. 
  2. Showcase specific examples of your team’s success that was possible due to their diverse perspectives.  
  3. Help the team see their similarities and appreciate and value their differences

Don’t assume positive intent, EXPLAIN your intent and enable your team to explain theirs

When we see unexpected or questionable behavior or get caught off guard, we typically assume that it was intentional and malicious. That kicked off a whole movement around how we should always assume positive intent, and give people the benefit of doubt.

Isn’t it better however, to understand the intent, rather than just assume that it is positive? Diverse team members often end up shouldering much of the burden on assuming positive intent, and that is unacceptable. 

Be radically data based, transparent, balanced and equitable in all your decisions and dealings

As a leader, it is incredibly important to explain why, and be transparent. When we are able to show the link between data, facts, analysis, insights and decisions, we build credibility for those decisions. The more opaque decisions are in your organization, the more likely it is that link between data, insight and decision, isn’t strong.

Discourage politics 

Politics is the enemy of inclusion.

Politics is about furthering the interests of some, retaining power in the hands of those who have it, creating an inner circle or ‘In group’ and ‘Out group’.

The 3 core drivers of politics are inequity in a) access to information, b) access and visibility to key stakeholders, decision makers and networks, c) access to opportunity 

The 3 hallmarks of political cultures are a) those in the inner circle get ahead, b) there is retaliation for raising your voice and going against the tide, c) loyalty matters more than business performance (your boss matters more than your customer).

Build a FeedForward culture, instead of a Feedback culture

FeedForward is a concept popularized by Marshall Goldsmith, who highlights 2 key differentiators- we give the person context, as well as, suggestions that would help them. This turns the feedback process on its head, and takes it from a passive process, to an active process where we are invested in the person’s success.

A FeedForward culture helps us break up power dynamics, and creates inextricable interdependencies, that accelerate cohesion.

Make your Team meetings inclusive 

Experiences of our diverse team members tell us that team meetings are fraught with stress for them, because:

  • their ideas are often discounted or credited to someone else, 
  • their voices are drowned out
  • their contributions are undervalued

Here are 5 practical tips to ensure inclusive team meetings:

  1. Ensure all voices are heard – a leader’s role is more just asking people to speak up. Ask yourself, “How can I enable / inspire every single team member to speak up?”. Experiment regularly with ideas to make this happen. Engage your team in the effort.
  2. Let conversations breathe – Build sensitivity with your team on asking open ended questions, and finding ways to explore issues, rather than throttle conversations. 
  3. Give ideas oxygen – Credit ideas to the right person, Stop ideas from being discounted or dismissed out of turn. Surround sound ideas, especially diverse team members’. Build sensitivity and engage your team to do the same.
  4. Demonstrably value substance over style – As organizations overindex on visibility and communication, and become hyperpowerpoint cultures, we lose perspective on actual quality of content and tangible results, and get enamored by the glitz of pretty slides. This tips the scales against inclusion. 
  5. Engage the team to brainstorm ways to make team meetings more inclusive and get the best out of each of them. 

Having coached hundreds of leaders in my career, I’ve developed,  used and seen leaders leverage these tips to build an inclusive team and deliver great results. As you continue on your journey to grow as a leader, and be more inclusive, I hope these ideas help you on your journey. 

Inclusion is the Power of Collective Genius, and you have the key to unlock it.

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