How to Build More Inclusive Team Dialogue
At least until automation fully takes over, we all want to have a tangible impact on our work. We want to know that we are valued and that our perspective matters. Sometimes, though, team dynamics can push against what we might expect to be “easy, regular” team meetings. The research shows teams are often stifled by two problems: interruptions and microaggressions. These are two pernicious ways that unconscious bias undermines team effectiveness in meetings and at work.
This is why our team leads with inclusion first and then talks about diversity. If we don’t have inclusive team norms and communication, the diversity of the team’s ideas and voices can be stifled. We’ve seen higher turnover in teams that have a diverse composition but not inclusive team norms. So, let’s take a look at how to work toward solving the problems of interruptions and microaggressions.
You know what an interruption is. When it happens, it doesn’t feel good, and a vicious cycle can be created where those who, over time, are interrupted more frequently than others feel devalued and will speak up less. Interruptions break up the flow of someone’s idea and make it difficult for not only the person speaking to get their point across but also for others to properly listen and synthesize the information being presented.
We all interrupt from time to time, particularly when a conversation is really flowing and we get excited, but work on catching yourself before you speak by writing down your idea first. With this approach, you don’t forget your point and the other person is able to finish articulating theirs. Also, try giving specific attention to the voices in the room who do not speak up as often. Consider asking them to share their opinion on something someone else said first and then, once they share, listen, and take in what they are saying. It’s a bit of a twist on “leaders eat last” — try “leaders speak last.” If a member of the team interrupts another, you might say something like, “One moment, I’d like to hear the rest of what Ling was saying before we move on.”
Microaggressions have a cost to us all. 70% of employees in this survey said they’d be upset if they heard a microaggression, with 50% saying it would make them consider leaving their job. Microaggressions are verbal or nonverbal slights that communicate hostile or negative messages based on race, gender, or other differences. Whether accidental or not, it’s important to put the work in to stop any microaggressions and to create a safe space for calling out those who do.
Some microaggressions include:
- “I don’t see color when I see you.” Although usually well intended, saying this erases part of who they are. Only when we see all of one another can we engage in a dialogue about race. There is a great TED talk on being “color brave” vs “color blind” here.
- “You said that really well.” This can signal that you had not expected them to be able to say something to such a positive degree.
- “Where are you really from?” Instead, you can ask someone about their family, show interest in a person’s heritage without assuming they didn’t grow up right where you did.
- “This project would be too demanding on your home life.” There is research showing that microaggressions such as not giving women challenging assignments or candid feedback are a form of benevolent sexism, which is acting or believing that women need the protection of men.
- Underestimating someone’s level. We’ve heard from senior-level women and people of color who share their stories of being assumed they are an analyst or an administrative assistant when meeting new people.
While to some, at first glance, these sorts of statements and actions may seem small, they can feel alienating to one of your valued employees, and if repeated can lead to disengagement and turnover. We all want to stay aware of power dynamics that are in place that might not allow the person on the receiving end of a microaggression to feel comfortable speaking up. For a long time, the recipients of offensive remarks’ default response were to ignore the statement and let it go. We don’t want people to feel as though they might want to sweep away their feelings, rather, as learners and leaders, we want to build more inclusive, and as a result supportive, cultures.
What can we do if we see a microaggression from another? Consider asking a question to open up the dialogue with curiosity and positive intent to better understand what the person was “trying to say.” Support the person who received the comment by affirming any emotional reaction they may have. With active listening, we can validate their experience and together think of a productive path forward.
Our words and actions create the culture of our workplace. What we have control of is how intentional we are in moving more of our team dialogue into micro-inclusions.
Micro-inclusions are incremental acts of support and allyship that focus on support and advocacy in the moment. Micro-inclusions convey that someone is a respected, valued work partner.
Here are some micro-inclusions we can all use.
- Pronounce names correctly. Like many things in life, when in doubt, just ask!
- Rotate who plans social gatherings and therefore diversifies the activities selected and the timing (e.g. not always “after work” for working parents).
- Pronouns can be different than what you expect. This is another area to ask (vs. assume). Additionally, our team is working really hard at dropping the “thanks guys” (when it’s clearly not all men but is often used to mean “people”).
- If you catch yourself describing a woman’s behavior to someone else, pause and ask yourself whether you’d be using the same words and perspective if you were talking about a man.
- Rotate note-takers. The research is clear on this one.
- Distribute meeting agendas in advance to give everyone the time they need to ideate and prepare.
- Cue and encourage collaboration and help other voices be heard. For example, you might say something like, “I’d love to hear what Marlette thinks. This is her wheelhouse.”
In general, when we all display and feel empathy at work through inclusive team communication, we all enjoy our work (and our lives!) more fully!