Humans have a deeply wired need to belong. We live in a time when divides between groups are deepening; lines drawn to establish who belongs in each tribe are more vivid than ever as we sequester ourselves in bubbles of reinforcing beliefs.
It’s easy to heighten a sense of belonging by narrowing and amplifying the rules that define a group’s exclusive membership. But exclusion, conscious or otherwise, comes at the price of a lack of diversity in thought, experience, creativity and competency. Our connected world and global economy compels us to lead by expanding and improving organizational norms and practices to promote diversity. We must build expansive cultures of belonging where many different people and ideas can thrive.
My work with leaders on how to build more inclusive cultures is rooted in some foundational principles of leadership development: coaching, recognition, and know thyself (especially thy cognitive biases.)
The best leaders are good coaches. (“Being a good coach” is the number one leadership behavior in this Google study) Being a good coach means taking the time to understand how your people think, how they identify and solve problems, what they value and what they’re trying to achieve. Your knowledge and experience adds to and builds upon theirs. Tempting as it may be, coaching is not about turning a team of people into various versions of you. A coach leader gets curious about their people. They ask questions and listen before making suggestions or offering advice. They develop talent by building on the unique strengths of each individual and encourage multiple ways of problem solving and achieving results.
Quick coaching tip: the most common definition of coaching is “working with someone to get them from where they are to where they want to be.” If you don’t know where someone on your team wants to be, you can’t successfully coach them. If you do know, you can help them generate their best work as they strive to get there.
Recognition is one of the most under-utilized leadership tools available. I’ve coached so many frustrated, demoralized people who simply want to be recognized for their value and efforts. Indra Nooyi, former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo and Doug Conant, former President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company, both cite recognition as one the most important behaviors they practiced as CEOs.
Studies of inclusiveness show that while we desire a sense of belonging, we also want to know that our contributions have unique value. (Catalyst, Inclusion Matters, March 2, 2015) This finding is echoed in multiple neuroscience studies that reveal our core human need for both belonging and autonomy. Effective recognition acknowledges someone’s place within the organization and the specific contribution they make to its success.
This is an example of recognition, shared with me by a client, that misses the mark:
“You are doing well so far. Everyone really likes you.”
It’s certainly not a bad thing to know we are liked, but my client was not working twelve hour days generating lengthy reports and exploring creative solutions so she could be liked. The mostly male leadership of this organization were often aloof and prickly toward employees so there was no evidence the organization valued likeability either. This recognition did not make my client feel seen, valued or included.
The following are two examples of more effective recognition:
“As you know, Project X is critical to our success this year. I’m so impressed by the way you communicated it’s value to stakeholders in other business units which was essential in generating the buy-in needed to get it done.”
“Thank you for working so hard to build out xx process. I saw you put in many long days. Your work on developing this process makes it possible for us to offer a better solution to our clients which is going to differentiate us in the market.”
These examples show that their leader sees them working hard on something valuable to the organization and that their specific contribution was key to achieving results and success.
Know thy cognitive biases and short-cuts:
In every moment of every day there are so many decisions to make and so much data to absorb that our brains have brilliantly devised some cognitive short-cuts to help us more efficiently sort through it all. The downside of this evolutionary achievement is that these short-cuts can lead us to be simplistic, short-sighted, over-confident, or exclusive. Great leaders have awareness of the biases at play when they plan, execute and implement decisions and strategies.
Our brains have been wired to perceive the world by various cultural norms, assumptions and stories. Culture is a code of behavior created by underlying beliefs. To generate a culture of belonging we must probe and question those beliefs regularly to make sure they serve and support multiple ways of thinking, doing and being. We must slow down and inspect those stories and assumptions to better understand how they influence us. We don’t have to feel bad that we make assumptions because we are designed to do so. But, we do have to notice and challenge them in ourselves and in others. Great leaders stay alert to the forces in us that want to make things simpler and easier and they question what drives us to put people and scenarios into narrow categories and compartments. They find ways to question their own thinking, they seek diverse and differing perspectives and they make it safe for people to disagree and challenge each other.
Great leadership goes hand in hand with generating a culture of inclusion and belonging. Our tribe is vast and varied and will thrive when we gather our unique tools and build together. Embracing the leadership practices above are a few of the things we can do to empower the diversity of voices that will generate our best solutions.