Reflections on building inclusive team culture

As a member of the LGBT community who has been out since I was a teenager I’ve long been hyper aware of spaces where I felt both uncomfortable and unsafe. There have been workplaces where I needed to be the “buttoned up” version of myself verses those where I could be the relaxed, creative and authentic me. So it’s no surprise that I think about inclusive team culture a lot as a creative leader and a team manager. Throughout my career I’ve strived to create cultures where diversity and inclusion is celebrated and the norm. And it’s not just because diversity and inclusion is the new buzzy thing employers are all focused on. It’s much more personal for me, and something I’ve been focused on for a long time.

One of my formative experiences around inclusive team culture was when I was in college serving as the design editor, and then later the co-editor-in-chief of our college’s LGBT newsmagazine (UCLA’s TenPercent for those that might remember it). Our editorial and design staff shared office space with several other student news magazines — including the Latinx, Muslim, Womens’, Asian / Pacific Islander, Jewish and African American publications. We were all so incredibly different, but we all worked in close quarters on our separate special-interest news magazines with a sense of respect, curiosity and openness that would set the tone for every team I loved working with after.

As a creative leader who has built and led several design teams, I need my teams to feel that same sense of comfort, respect and safety so they can show up authentically — both so that they can do their best work for the company, but also so they can be happy and have fun (yes, fun at work!) and find shared meaning with the coworkers+friends that they spend so much time with.

While I’ve experienced some wonderful diversity and openness in the workplace similar to my magazine editing days in college, I’ve also seen the other side—when things haven’t felt open—and it’s served as a good counter-experience. Early in my career I was hired as a designer on a team where I didn’t feel like I could show up fully as myself. There wasn’t technically anything wrong with the team or the job — in fact it was a well regarded company, and a job I’d been ecstatic to land at the time — but as soon as I started, I learned that it wasn’t the sort of place where I could be me. Nothing explicitly forbidding, but clear undertones that individuality wasn’t to be expressed or shared.

I didn’t feel comfortable sharing anything about my life, even a slightly differing perspective in an average discussion, much less a “big idea” when it came to more important projects, or doing little things like decorating my desk with something personal. People kept to themselves with their headphones on most of the day, no sharing or critique, no speaking up with ideas. Ultimately the end product we were designing was lacking in innovation and inspiration. Technically everything was fine on the surface, but something obviously wasn’t right.

I’ve tried to understand why a job that looked so good on the surface felt so bad. I reflect back on that experience regularly, and contrast it with the happier teams I’ve been lucky to be a part of, where diversity and inclusion have been core values put into practice, not just buzzwords handed down from leadership.

True inclusion isn’t just what a company says to inspire everyone during orientation or a lofty message from leadership, but a practice in daily work.

We had diversity in spades — a healthy gender balance, people on the team from many cultures from all over the world, a healthy representation of ages and experience levels, and a good number of LGBT teammates.

It wasn’t just diversity and inclusion on paper and in its demographics. It was the type of team where a junior designer could feel comfortable proposing a crazy idea, and where they were encouraged to debate it with a member of senior leadership. It was the a team where everyone was learning from each other, and everyone was curious and hungry for a different point of view.

Not only was it more fun to work with a group with a wide variety of backgrounds, viewpoints and ideas, it made our work so much better — more inclusive, accessible and thoughtful solutions.

It’s one thing to walk into a team that already has a strong culture of inclusivity and see how powerful and beneficial the culture can be. But it’s another thing entirely to build your own culture from the ground up, or turn around a team culture that’s in turmoil.

The following are some thoughts (not exhaustive by any means) around how I’ve tried to foster more inclusive team cultures throughout my career:

  1. Hire diverse, and then actually act like a diverse team: In one of my first roles as a manager, I naively thought that if I hired a diverse team, that a culture of inclusion would naturally follow. Well..it was a good idea and a great start, but hiring a diverse team didn’t automatically lead to an inclusive culture. Basically, there’s no silver bullet here. After doing all of the hiring, I had to be intentional about doing the daily work to create conditions where everyone could show up authentically. Speaking of which…
  2. Create intentional space for contrasting points of view: On several of my teams I started noticing team members who didn’t always feel comfortable expressing their views, especially if they felt it might be an unpopular or controversial one, or one that made them stand out personally. I wanted the team to feel that it was more than ok to share a different view, but that it was actually necessary. To create a more comfortable and welcoming environment, I started making intentional space in every meeting and conversation I could. I’d pause, look around and solicit ideas when people might have kept talking before. More importantly I’d slow down the loud and spirited debates where the same group of talkative people were hashing out their ideas, and try and encourage other people to join. I’d also recognize that some of my teammates weren’t ever going to feel comfortable in larger meetings, so I tried to get together with smaller groups or get people to share their ideas one-on-one and help them socialize their ideas in a way that felt natural to them. Mostly I just started slowing down more and noticing where it felt like there were gaps.
  3. Let the team teach each other: One of my favorite learnings is getting people to teach each other as a path to inclusive culture. In addition to actual learning happening, it’s also a great bonding experience. When our teams didn’t know about topics like accessibility or unconscious bias in design, a few teammates stepped up and taught the rest of the team. It brought several of the team member’s personal stories to light, and broadened the entire team’s awareness and empathy.
  4. Get to know each other, for real: It might sound obvious, but take some time for your team to get to know each other more deeply. You can spend years working with someone and not really know some basic things about them, their personal stories, their background, or their working and learning style. Doing some intentional learning about each other can surface some really powerful insights around your teams’ differences, which you can bring into your work. At several of my teams in the past we’ve done some exercises around creating manuals for ourselves, show-and-tell storytelling, and group workshops for type/strengths to get more deeply connected.
  5. Model the behavior you want to see: As a member of the LGBT community I’ve learned how to “button up” my identity and code-switch when I’ve felt that it might make someone else uncomfortable to be around a gay person. It’s 2019, and I’ve been out since the mid-90’s, but it’s a hard habit to break. But more and more I’m opening up about myself at work so that I can model the type of openness and authenticity I want to see reflected in the people around me. Small things like mentioning my partner or that I’m involved with LGBT causes have helped my colleagues see an authentic team member and leader, which in turn can help everyone else come out of their shells more and feel safe and respected sharing themselves.
  6. Create a playful culture. It’s ok to be silly: Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is a serious topic. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t bring a lot of joy and fun into your team’s culture. A sense of play is important, especially for creatives. Diversity and inclusion should be a celebration! There’s still room for humor, self-expression and irreverence. At one of the first teams I led, I kept hula hoops by my desk to remind people to get up and goof off. At another team, we had a menagerie of stuffed animals in our lounge area that we constantly re-arranged to prank each other, and used as characters for short films the teams would make for each other.

Building diverse and inclusive team culture is important on so many levels. It’s inspiring to see how many companies and teams are taking it to heart and making it a top priority. We still have a long way to go, but the momentum that’s building is really exciting and creating the kind of positive change we desperately need in our workplaces and lives.

UX lead @ Google Photos. Previously Thumbtack, YouTube, Apple, & Sony.

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