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Build Team Norms That Cultivate Allyship, Equity and Inclusion

As leaders work toward more inclusive company cultures, one strategy is to create team norms that facilitate belonging, inclusion and equity.

A group of business people sitting around a table.

There are a number of ways you can work to build new culture and team norms that facilitate change in your workplace. As a leader and one who develops managers, what you do and how you do it can make a big difference: Catalyst found that 45 percent of employees' experiences of inclusion are explained by their manager's inclusive leadership behaviors.

Develop an Inclusive Team Culture

Work to ensure you are cultivating a culture where diverse identities and perspectives are welcome, where people feel safe to be who they are and fully contribute, engaged because they are contributing to the team and company's success, committed because leadership cares about their professional growth and well-being, and feel they belong because they are valued, connected and supported. Psychological safety is the foundation for engagement, commitment and belonging.

Create Psychological Safety on Your Team

Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as "a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves." Help create an environment where people on your team feel psychologically safe to do the following:

  1. Express and be themselves. People who feel safe don't feel the need to cover, code switch or otherwise hide a portion of their identity; they are comfortable expressing and being themselves. Eliminate out-groups so that everyone on the team feels they are an equal member of the team. Consider introducing shared values to broaden the group's feeling of belonging together. Make sure you follow through on commitments to reduce biases and microaggressions. And prioritize DEI on your team, develop shared goals around DEI, and enroll everyone in working to achieve these goals.

  2. Take risks, make mistakes and share concerns without fear of retribution. On teams that work well, people are not intimidated, reticent or consistently stressed. For this to happen, leaders and colleagues need to be open to new ideas, provide thoughtful feedback and be available for support and collaboration with all team members. Approach people with a growth mindset, and view mistakes as growth opportunities. As a leader, take responsibility for team risk and share credit for team successes.

  3. Feel confident to speak up. When people are fearful that they will be humiliated, ignored or blamed if they speak their minds, they shut down. Too many leaders don't tolerate disagreement or even the raising of uncomfortable issues. Become the kind of leader where people around you are confident about speaking up. Work to have equal distribution of speaking time across all team members in your meetings, where each idea is heard and respected.

  4. Know their unique skills and talents are valued and utilized. People thrive on teams where their expertise is valued rather than questioned or disrespected, their unique skills and talents are utilized, and their contributions are aligned with team goals. Empower and trust team members to make decisions, help team members understand how their work relates to the larger goal of the team, and always provide formal and informal recognition for accomplishments as well as feedback. Create a team norm for recognizing contributions and major milestones. Often cultures overvalue the leadership style of the CEO or the dominant culture and undervalue other equally important styles of leadership. Instead, recognize and value different leadership styles.

  5. Trust and respect colleagues. Teams thrive where people feel they are not judged, everyone respects the expertise of their colleagues and can rely on them to meet goals and timelines, and all team members are encouraged to take reasonable risks. Create time and space for team members to get to know each other, build empathy for one another and develop a collective intelligence together. Consider holding team get-togethers like lunches or volunteer outings or other activities that build informal connections. 

Foster Engagement, Commitment and Belonging

There are many ways to cultivate a more inclusive team culture that fosters engagement, commitment and belonging. Secondary to psychological safety, Google found that effective teams develop dependability ("I can rely on team members to complete quality work on time"), structure and clarity ("I understand my role, plan, goals and processes"), meaning ("I find a sense of purpose in my work"), and impact ("My work is making a difference for the team or organization"). The following are a few actions you can implement:

Develop shared vision and goals. Create clarity, structure and meaning by developing a shared vision for the team's collective work and connecting it to a larger impact. How does your team's work contribute to a better world or a key company priority? And what are your collective goals in achieving this vision together?
Establish mutual accountability and process clarity. From your team's collective goals, individuals should create their own goals, timelines and plans of action. Strive to make the goals transparent and measurable, discuss processes and review progress together, overcommunicate any changes, and take responsibility for achieving your own plan as a model for your team.

Run inclusive meetings. In many workplaces, team culture and collaboration center around meetings—whether you're working in an office together or working remotely. Here are some things to consider in developing an inclusive environment in your meetings:

  • Develop an agenda and ground rules.
  • Preplan for accessibility and accommodation.
  • Communicate the meeting's purpose.
  • Capture notes during the meeting.
  • Make space for the quiet ones.
  • Conclude the meeting with clear next steps and outcomes. 

Encourage career growth in individual team members. Encourage managers to talk to their team members about their career aspirations and create transparent pathways to growth. Outline concrete pathways for promotion, leadership development opportunities, compensation raises and bonuses. What are the metrics for achieving a promotion, and what milestones must be met along the way? What are the feedback loops a team member can rely on to determine if they are adequately reaching those milestones? What are their opportunities to shine and be recognized for their achievements, and how will this play a role in promotion, compensation, or bonuses? These processes are often very opaque in organizations, and can lead to unfair and biased decision-making, as well as low morale and engagement.
Support physical and mental health. To foster a healthy team, it's important to support individuals in all their dimensions, including their physical and mental health, as well as any individual needs. Hopefully, your organization offers inclusive benefits that address physical and mental well-being. Managers and people teams should help everyone understand and navigate these benefits. Develop team norms that encourage physical wellness, taking time off from work, and openly discussing mental health—especially during challenging times for individuals, groups, the company or the world.

Excerpt from How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier, Workplace by Melinda Briana Epler (McGraw Hill, September 2021).

Melinda Briana Epler is CEO of Change Catalyst and author of HOW TO BE AN ALLY: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace.


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