How to Build an Inclusive Culture

Two things have shaped me into the absolute Inclusion Freak I am today.

As an immigrant to this country, I’m an expert in feeling excluded and not part of the IN crowd. It was hard as a young person to feel so out of place. It impacted all my early friendships, relationships, how I saw myself and undeniably, who I am today. Now, as a mother of two young girls, I’m on high alert for inclusion, or lack of it. Schools and playgrounds are hotbeds of the best (teamwork, problem solving, giggling, games) and the worst (exclusion, bullying).

In reality, the workplace is no different than society, nor playgrounds. I’ve seen examples of inclusion and exclusion at their finest. Having come so far, and honestly worked so hard on myself, I realize it’s high time we eradicated exclusion. It quite literally pains my heart to see it, likely because it brings up so many hard and awful memories of growing up. Lack of inclusion, is by definition — Exclusion. There is not grey here — only black and white. In corporate America, my experience is (sadly!) that exclusion dwarves Inclusion. If you want to flip the script, here are a few ideas to get started.

1. Build diverse teams. This is tops for me. Diversity in every dimension is important (i.e physical ability, sexual orientation, gender, educational background and attainment, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, marital status, the list goes on). Why is it so important? Because you can’t substitute anything for lived experience. Do you want to know what it’s like being a person with limited mobility? Listen to the person who has a physical handicap! Do you want to know what it’s like being a Mom? Watch and learn from the mother on your team. Do you want to know what it’s like to be a caregiver for elderly parents? Go straight to the source, in every case.

2. Build relationships. Be the one who is trusted with all types of information. Seek to humbly learn from every person you greet on your path. My relationship building is underpinned by deep-seated curiosity. If I ask you about yourself, what you’re up to on the weekends, why you are a vegetarian, the hardest thing you ever had to do, your proudest non-work accomplishment — it’s because I truly want to learn about you. Relationships are everything to me.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask. Want to know what it’s like to [fill in the blank]? Ask the person who lives that reality every single day. If you’ve done #2 above and are asking with sincerity to understand, the person you’re conversing with will usually be glad you asked and will want to share with you. One of my favorite examples is that of @MicheleDaterman. In the aftermath of the Atlanta racially-motivated shootings, I was reeling. Michele called me and simply asked, “What has your experience been like and how can I support you?” It meant everything then, and it means everything now — as I reflect back.

4. Don’t expect others to educate you. As nice as it is to ask, it puts the onus on those that may be historically marginalized (and therefore already carrying a lot) to educate you about what it’s like to be [fill in the blank]. There are also power dynamics at play, where you may not get the full picture/information. I will always remember being at a company offsite with @LalitMonteiro, one of the kindest, most innovative and dedicated leaders I’ve ever had the chance to work with. As we were jaunting across the streets of downtown Portland on a digital scavenger hunt with @MattSweeting and @GlobalSessions, Lalit turned to me with great innocence and complete humility and asked — “What’s it like to be a working Mom at Nike?” Very shocked by the question, my mind raced. At the time, I was still pretending that I had it all together (by the way, we’re all pretending), I responded with something to the effect of, “Oh it’s fine, people are really supportive, and totally understanding. It makes it really easy to be a Mom of two young kids and also work really hard professionally.” I remember him looking at me quizzically, probing with his deep eye contact to see if I was bullshitting.I knew it was a falsehood as soon as I stuttered it. In reality, people were/are a medium level of understanding, but not always (especially when your kids are sick and you fall behind on agreed-upon deadlines because you’re providing full-time care at home). I felt this constant pressure to keep up, even though all of it (life, work, husband founding a start up) created an unsustainable pressure cooker environment. Also, parking at Nike is hard, and waddling across our massive campus between 30–39 weeks pregnant was the absolute worst. Waddling sucks! I don’t know how ducks do it! @Lalit, if you were to ask me today, my answer would be nearly 100% different. But everyone — keep asking! (Just don’t expect 100% fidelity of an answer.)

5. Seek to understand, before seeking to be understood. I observe and experience many people who ask what my/they/their experience is driven by seeking to justify their own behavior, or trying to determine what the next best step, action, words are for themselves. This rarely passes my own sniff test. If you’re asking — truly seek to understand the marginalized person’s experience.

6. Create space. One of the things I most appreciate about @SeanaHannah’s leadership style is that she readily acknowledges she doesn’t have all the answers. In the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) space, this manifests when she creates space for the team to talk about the things that really matter — which are often not business related. We probably spend 75% of our once weekly 90-minute team meetings talking about things like Inclusion, Diversity, Team Dynamics, Black History Month, Trust Talks, etc. This time spent together with a cohort of people who you deeply trust, and want to deepen relationships with, is invaluable.

7. Be forthright that you don’t know. This one seems the most challenging for people. Many can’t seem to admit that when it comes to Inclusion, one can’t really understand it unless you’ve been excluded. Some of us have been excluded more than others. Look to those people for your cues (you can likely guess who they are, and if you can’t — I would challenge you to observe more). Just as you would identify and look to Superusers for any digital or physical product you’re designing or iterating on, do the same with Inclusion/Exclusion. Who has been historically included? Who has been historically excluded? What can you learn from both?

8. We have more in common, than not. When you talk with teams about exclusion, everyone can usually think of a relatively recent time when they felt excluded. Whether it was ageism, sexism, racism, ableism, anti-Semitism, etc., we’ve all been there. It’s the great equalizer. Using this as a conversation starter can help your teammates build empathy for one another.

9. Inclusion is at the core of outstanding business results. Inclusion is a fundamental building block of Psychological Safety (PS). Lots has been written about psychological safety. PS is critical for people and teams to outperform themselves, time after time. I will write more about psychological safety in another post. It’s hugely important!

10. Believe. Believe there is a better way than Exclusion. Believe that Inclusion is at the core of winning teams. More than anything, Believe that you can influence the culture of Inclusion on your team, and once you master it, your team will soar.

Please reach out if you want to chat more about the following. I’d love to learn from you!

· How to build the most Inclusive team

· How to do a baseline assessment of the level of Inclusion on your team

· How to set Inclusion goals for your team

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