A Place for Everyone: The Need for Inclusion and Diversity in High-Performing Teams

Determining how to create and maintain high-performing teams has been a focus of many industries for some time now. More recently, inclusion and diversity have started to take their rightful place as part of the conversation. However, many organizations and leaders still don’t realize that inclusion and diversity are a vital element within the very foundation of thriving teams.

As the senior director of communications and inclusion at Clearlink, I’ve found that inclusion and diversity are inherently connected to the creation of high-performing teams. Here’s what we’ve learned about how prioritizing an inclusive and diverse work environment creates stronger, more productive teams.

Inclusion and Diversity Defined

At Clearlink, we spent considerable time researching and revising the most effective approach to diversity and inclusion for our organization. Based on those efforts, here is how we define those terms, which will be the basis for how I discuss them within this piece.

  • Inclusion: An environment where folks with different ideas, backgrounds, perspectives, and identities are valued, utilized, and welcomed.
  • Diversity: The presence of individual and group differences across all levels of the organization.

Diversity Data

People inherently approach inclusion and diversity from different perspectives based on their own experiences and levels of awareness. Recognizing those differences can help you determine the best way to approach the discussion around the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace for everyone. Our approach has been to customize our initiatives from the top down by breaking down barriers in initial discussions, creating space for reflection, and encouraging opportunities for amnesty.

For those that are skeptical of the value of diversity to an organization, I recommend looking at the data.

  • Innovation-focused firms in the S&P 1500 that had women in senior leadership averaged over $40 million in increased value (DEZVO & Ross, 2012).
  • Companies with women on the board had, on average, 4% higher return on equity and 4% higher income growth (Curtis, Schmid, & Struber, 2012).
  • Workplaces that are both diverse and inclusive benefit from a 12% increase in discretionary effort, a 20% increase in intent to stay, and 50% improvement in team collaboration and commitment (CEB, 2012).

While prioritizing inclusion and diversity is important in and of itself, it has also been shown to have data-supported impact on companies’ bottom lines.

Prioritizing inclusion and diversity has been shown to have data-supported impact on companies’ bottom lines.

The Science of Exclusion

Exciting neuroscientific research is being done on psychological safety’s impact on individual experiences, which can offer insight into the importance of inclusion in the workplace. Specifically, when neuroscientists monitor the brain of someone experiencing social exclusion, they detect similar patterns to those exhibited by someone who is experiencing physical pain.

As you can imagine, someone dealing with emotional or physical pain can have great difficulty achieving their full potential. If an individual is being held back because they are experiencing this pain, they may be unable to contribute to their team as effectively as they otherwise could, bringing down the group’s collective effectiveness and output.

Psychological Safety

In addition to inhibiting full potential, exclusion destroys what Google’s Project Aristotle determined to be the most important factor for high performing teams: psychological safety.

Project Aristotle was an initiative within Google to determine what factors and behaviors helped to make a team successful. In their quest to identify what makes high-performing teams different from others, some of Google’s top statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers studied over 180 different teams for two years.

In the end, they determined the most successful teams succeed because they achieve a strong level of psychological safety. Essentially, psychological safety means creating an environment where individuals do not fear negative repercussions for voicing their ideas or for being themselves. It’s an environment where every single person is encouraged to share in the ways and to the extent that they feel most comfortable.   

If we are not intentionally creating a workspace that make employees feel welcome and that they belong, we have hampered our organization’s psychological safety, if not completely prevented it, and therefore lessened our achievable levels of success.

Benefits of Inclusion

Successful teams value each individual’s contributions and insights. If a team excludes any individuals, it begins limiting its potential. Both the individual and the team suffers the consequences.

Creating an inclusive workplace can result in more employees finding the meaning in their work and feeling engaged.

Research has confirmed what many of us long expected about the benefits of inclusion and diversity: when people are included, they tend to actively participate in more activities that are beneficial for themselves and their teammates.

  • They are more likely to donate their time or money to a charitable cause, participate in voluntary tasks, help others with a mishap, and act cooperatively.
  • They are more willing to persist on a difficult task or project.
  • They will spend more time attempting to put together an unsolvable puzzle than an individual experiencing feelings of exclusion.
  • They may also have an easier time regulating their attention (Baumeister, DeWall, Ciarocco, & Twenge, 2005).  

Something we have confirmed through our internal findings at Clearlink is that employee performance and satisfaction improves when employees have a strong understanding of their purpose and how their work contributes to the bigger picture. Thus, creating an inclusive workplace can result in more employees finding the meaning in their work and feeling engaged.

Unconscious Bias

One pitfall that often deters an organization’s growth in terms of inclusion and diversity is unconscious bias. Bias is a natural human tendency: our brains recall years’ worth of information about our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes, and cultural context and make snap decisions without us even realizing a decision was made.

Everybody has some sort of unconscious bias—and our subconscious biases may be completely different than our conscious values. It can therefore be difficult to admit, but the reality is that if you have a brain, you have biases. In order to lessen the harmful effects of our biases, we must first acknowledge their existence and their impact.

Intent vs. Impact

An important distinction to remember when considering your own biases is the difference between intent and impact. When you act on your unconscious biases and are unaware it is happening, you don’t intend to harm another person. The impact of those unintentional biases, however, is harmful to those experiencing the biased words or actions.

Members of marginalized communities regularly feel those biases, which are often referred to as microaggressions. Just because the one acting on their biases doesn’t know they are doing it, it doesn’t make it any less painful for the person on the receiving end.

Vulnerability at All Levels

The key to rooting out unconscious bias and stopping it from undermining all your efforts is vulnerability. No one is perfect. The most empathetic people you know still suffer from unconscious bias. People who have been harmed by others’ biases are biased themselves. Encourage employees at all levels, from interns to executives, to allow themselves to be vulnerable and search for their own unconscious biases in an effort to mitigate them.

In our organization, we’ve found a great deal of success in starting group discussions and forums with the simple concept of amnesty. This reiterates the significance of creating a safe space for important and often vulnerable dialogue. We reflect individually and collectively on our biases and discuss their implications on our actions, decisions, and business processes through an empathetic, compassionate lens.

Creating awareness around unconscious bias and the need to root it out is part of active inclusion—the only way to foster real change and progress.

Bring Everyone Together

The full power of diversity can never be reached without the foundation of an inclusive community. So, while your company will benefit from having a diverse group of perspectives and backgrounds, the lack of an inclusive environment will hamper the sharing (and potential impact) of those perspectives.    

If you are not actively including, you are actually excluding.

One way to enhance inclusiveness is by communicating that inclusion involves everyone. These benefits and roadblocks are universal. Being inclusive means every single person has a voice at the table, every person is valued, every person is respected. That is a message that everyone can get behind. And when properly communicated, you’ll be able to sidestep the common pitfall of creating an us vs, them dynamic.

Here are four things to keep in mind as you work to bring everyone together.    

1. Relatedness

You can increase relatedness amongst your workforce by focusing on positive group identity and communicating the value of individual contributions across all levels of your business. This will help each person feel like they are part of the group, which, in turn, will change the way the brain processes and perceives other members of the group. It will also help an individual see how their work adds value to their immediate group and to the big picture, further strengthening the group dynamics.

2. Common Goals

Common goals have a two-fold benefit. First, helping individuals identify and target common goals builds a stronger sense of community within an organization. Second, when a group accomplishes a goal they were pursuing, it becomes a shared experience—one of the best ways to build relatedness between multiple individuals.

Furthermore, as individuals accomplish more goals with different groups or different individuals within a group, the further their team expands and the relationships within them strengthen.

3. Focus on Inclusion

A focus on not excluding can be detrimental to even the most well-meaning people. When you are hyper-focused on not exhibiting any exclusionary actions, you may be more likely to highlight the differences in people, which can instill feelings of being outside the group instead of bringing others into it.

Help your employees gain confidence by driving home the message of focusing on inclusion rather than potential exclusions.

4. Actively Including

Now take that focus on inclusion one step further: If you are not actively including, you are actually excluding. You cannot push inclusion only intermittently or after an incident occurs. It must be a constant, active focus in order to be effective.   

But because you can’t monitor every interaction that happens in your workplace, you need to actively drive your leadership and team members to champion inclusion themselves, creating a ripple effect that will change behavior—and what the general population views as acceptable behavior.

The bottom line is that culture is a living, constantly changing thing that will suffer if neglected. Help your culture of inclusion and diversity thrive. Make sure, every day, that it is being considered and championed and that it’s clearly articulated internally and externally.

Conclusion

Our medial prefrontal cortex gives us a gift unique to humans—the ability to see the perspective of others and imagine situations and life through their eyes. Let us not squander this amazing ability; instead, let us embrace it. We all deserve respect, safety, and dignity. Put the proper framework in place to ensure your employees, peers, colleagues, customers, and anyone who interacts with your organization gets to enjoy them.  

To learn more about Clearlink’s approach to diversity and inclusion, visit our Inclusion and Diversity page.

Robin Strup

Responsible for the internal and external communication and inclusion strategies at Clearlink, Robin proactively supports the celebration of diverse identities, perspectives, and life experiences in the work space and in the community at large.

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