I am not going to reiterate the neuroscience and psychological research behind the increasing awareness that inclusion and belonging are essential conditions for high performing teams. I am going to make a case for approaching this task in a more psychologically safe manner. It is ironic that diversity training sometimes triggers a deeply seated threat response. Perhaps we have to conduct our training in a way that is more sensitive to everyone’s need for inclusion and belonging.
Inclusion and belonging are powerful words. They are the force behind humanity’s best and worst acts. There are those who do understand and use their knowledge for the good of all. Then, there are those who understand and use their knowledge to manipulate people so that they and theirs have first access to all resources. They do not consider making sure there is enough left to fill other’s needs. The beliefs driving these behaviors may be conscious or unconscious.
Though there is abundant evidence that “all humans are created equal,” humanity’s condition does not reflect this truth. Inequities abound. The truth, no matter how powerful, cannot act alone to change our experience. We created the current conditions and we are the only ones who can change them. Historically, the only way we have achieved these types of transformations has been through changing our thinking. That means adopting a new belief about what is true.
What can be done to promote inclusion?
The most effective way to tackle this is in early childhood—providing socio emotional intelligence training. Listen to some very young children talk about SEI. For those of us who have grown up in a top down society where very few meet the criteria for belonging, it is going to take a lifetime of work to fully transform our beliefs.
In the workplace I see an approach that begins with individuals through one on one conversation between leader and follower. Then morphing to team conversations to create supporting community. A lone individual can make a personal choice to change their behavior and impact the social field around them. But, without reinforcement it is difficult to keep that decision alive. We will need a leader that is open to moving from their current belief system or who has already adopted the belief that all people are capable and willing to contribute to the success of the business.
The force of thought
Our individual thoughts drive our actions and results. The collective thoughts of aligned individuals are even more powerful. The force of thought isn’t a spiritual belief. It is part of our natural laws because human thought precedes action. Everything we create is thought taken form. First comes the idea, the concept, the image, then the word, which is the beginning of physicalizing the idea. I had a friend who said, “Commitment begins with lip service.” So we need not put down the posters and values statements because they are not yet yielding results. We simply have to take the next steps to embody inclusivity. I’ve described mine in my personal story below.
The thought process is not a solitary activity. It is both shaped and maintained by our social interactions, past and current. We have traveled far when we determine that the past thoughts of others and ourselves created our current state of inclusion and belonging. And that now, we can use the same power of thought to create what we would rather experience. The question is, what would belonging and inclusion look like? What are the new thoughts that would produce those results? And, what would it take to generate those thoughts?
How does this play out in the workplace?
While conducting 360 leadership assessments, I found that high performing teams gave their bosses kudos in two areas. 1) Their leader made them feel like a valued member of the team. And, 2) they enhanced their level of competence and industry knowledge.
When asked what their boss did to make them feel this way; it was during daily, weekly, monthly one to one meetings. These conversations weren’t love fests. One person confided that you had to have thick skin to work for his boss. But, the personal development and his resulting career growth were worth it. Other outcomes were team alignment on direction, priorities and high quality work. These kinds of results can only come as a result of an in depth conversation.
Would anyone hire or promote someone into a managerial position who said, “I’m too busy to build a high performance team!” It’s highly unlikely. Yet, that is the implication when managers say, “I don’t have time for 1-1 conversations with my direct reports.” How many organizations can say that their performance review process is a positive growth experience for managers and employees? Some managers admit that they and their employees don’t find them worthwhile, but it’s mandatory so they fill out the form. Doesn’t that sound a bit like the behavior observation forms that people admit to pencil whipping?
Let’s face why the conversations don’t happen
One might be tempted to make these conversations mandatory, but remember the pencil whipping? Anytime you make something mandatory that has to do with social interaction, the most likely response is fear. Why? As Ervin Goffman, famous predecessor of psychological safety said, “There is no interaction in which the participants do not take an appreciable chance of being slightly embarrassed or a slight chance of being deeply humiliated. Life may not be much of a gamble, but interaction is (p. 4).” 
We have to come to terms with the fact that humans evolved within a social dynamic where inclusion meant life and exclusion meant death. The need to survive also created a tight set of rules that determined who was in and who was out. All of human conflict is rooted in this history. If you are not one of us, you are against us. If you are not willing to follow our rules of behavior, you are out. The result is hidden agendas, hiding information, negative assumptions and misinterpretation of intentions.
Where do belonging and inclusion fit into the leadership mindset?
Strategy, vision and a path to getting there, managing P&L and making tough decisions are contributors to high performance. Those areas can always be improved, but their importance is well accepted. I have found that it is difficult for managers to give equal weight to the emotional health of the organization. Yet, there are countless stories that show the rise and decline of companies based on how people felt about their work and how they were treated. Anyone who aspires to build a healthy high performance team must demonstrate inclusive behavior to make it safe for people to let down their protective shields. In so doing, connections form and inclusion becomes the norm.
What about personal accountability?
Some can’t see why it is their responsibility to create inclusion and belonging. Isn’t it each person’s responsibility to ask for what they want and take the necessary steps to get it? You may think as I do that people are responsible for how they feel; that as individuals, we have the power to reject the false projections of others. There is some truth here; this doesn’t allow us to place all the responsibility on the individual. In fact, many who experience racism or other types of discrimination feel responsible for how they are treated. They ask, “What’s wrong with me?” “What can I do differently to be accepted?” This approach doesn’t help either.
A leadership paradox—fix what’s broken or unleash human potential
One side of the need to belong and to exclude, as we discussed, is that it is human nature not to speak up because we have an instinctual need to belong so that we can survive. In the workplace this often means keeping your job. It is also a self-protective instinct to exclude. Nature evolved this attribute to protect us in our hunter-gatherer days. Now we have fewer physical threats but we face intangible but worse dangers in dealing with power and politics. Thus this aspect of human nature continues to play a vital function for survival.
On the other side, human beings have the ability to differentiate mistaken beliefs from reality, given the proper information in spite of apparent conditions.The implications are big. Would we make faster progress if we focused on teaching people how to achieve a sense of belonging? I think so because we aren’t going to change human nature in the short span of time we have to turn our survival guide away from competition to collaboration. We need to do this quickly to address the global threats of climate change, over population, nuclear war and homelessness.
If we try to mandate this education we can cause more problems. Or simply get no response. We have all heard the reactions of those who feel they are being blamed for inequities that they had no hand in creating. The backlash against affirmative action is another example. Voluntary participation is a must. Trying to reveal a truth before a person is ready to accept can throw them into fear. Fear closes all communication. The connection is gone.
Context for these ideas: A brief personal story
Exclusion is very real. I cried many nights as a child and teen when classmates called me ugly names. It was hard not being invited to social events. When I was six years old, two white boys tied me to a fence and taunted me. One of the boys picked up a sharp stick, “What should we do to her?” An old white woman came to my rescue and ran them off. To this very day I remember what she looked like and feel my gratitude.
At home things weren’t much safer. A racist and violent stepfather terrorized us. My mother defied him and encouraged me to be rebellious. Because I always wanted to be a teacher, she kept telling me I could go to college if I studied and got scholarships. This idea came from the rich people who hired her to clean their home. My stepfather considered it a ridiculous idea. I was to go to work and earn money for the family.
So, I decided to study hard and did very well in school. Having no friends helped me focus, which is good because it takes a lot longer to learn when you are fighting against the low expectations of others. As a result of my efforts and my mother’s support I ended up at UCLA. I became a credentialed teacher, and later got my masters in organizational development. With a successful consulting career behind me you would think I had overcome my fear of exclusion.
But, as recently as last year I was at a very small retreat where I felt unheard and misunderstood. I thought I hid it well, till a good friend said, “You have to stop believing that no one listens to you. You are heard!” I wondered if I could ever do that. Then it happened.
What I learned that made me a better leader
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
A bi-cultural background is a painful experience when you don’t feel you belong in either one. Eventually, I had to accept that my solution: “I don’t need these people to like me,” wasn’t working. I was emboldened by the thought that others needed to belong as much as I did. So I began to do little things like making sure I pointed out a good idea or insightful comment at a meeting. I did it with my family as well and watched one particularly difficult relationship transform into one of mutual support. It is important to note that sometimes this transformation happens entirely because of changes we make in our thinking. There are people who aren’t capable of self-awareness. Yet, the process still works.
The steps in my transformation weren’t linear, but they are identifiable.
1) I could not have done this without first accepting my need to belong.
2) Realizing that everyone has this largely unfulfilled need enabled me to approach others first to establish a relationship.
3) This increased my sense of belonging and reduced my fear of exclusion.
4) I then noticed that I was able to listen to feedback and admit to mistakes without feeling the familiar threat of rejection.
5) Finally, I admit there are many setbacks along the way. Disappointment in lack of reciprocation or seeing results can make you question the validity of this approach. I said the force of thought is a physical law. So is the need to belong. When you keep extending inclusion in thought and action it will transform your relationships. It works just like the mysterious law that turns an acorn into an oak. We know that works as long as it gets the right water, sunlight and soil. Now and then a seed fails to grow even in the perfect conditions. We may find out why or we may not, but we do not cease believing in this amazing phenomenon.
Learning to become an inclusive leader never ends because, by definition, we are blind to unconscious bias. I had been worried that a leadership mindset of inclusion and belonging would be seen as enabling the “victim mentality.” Then Sophie Sharpe, MSEW, wrote me.
“It’s interesting to learn of what one direct report said of conversations with their line manager who led a high performing team that the ‘..conversations weren’t love fests. … But, the personal development and his resulting career growth were worth it.’ It sheds light on and somewhat dispels a myth that inclusive leaders lack the capability to make tough decisions and display courage, whereas holding people accountable and instilling confidence in their ability to take ownership for results that they control is a fundamental element of it. “
My brain lit up. The very purpose of inclusivity and belonging is to improve well being and bring out people’s talents. But you can’t do that unless you also expect them to perform to high standards. (Relationship Centered Leadership Belief #4)
Our need to belong is what enables us to come together and accomplish things that could not be done alone. (See footnote below for list of books that helped me  ) The leader then initiates the sense of belonging, inspires the shared goals, direction, acquires resources and encourages the signs of growth. As I look back, I realize that when I first tried to enroll managers in relationship building with employees, it was the blind leading the blind. I believe leaders are the agents of change. They can be employees or line managers. To lead we have to enlighten ourselves first and act accordingly. Thought is contagious, so make it a good one.
I will explain this further in the section on what I learned that made me a better leader.
Viktor Frankl, Peter Koestenbaum, Edgar Schein, Gloria Steinem, Carolyn Heilbrun, Alice Walker, Pinkola Estes, Eckhart Tolle, Don Miguel Ruiz, and Irvin Yalom. Schein and Koestenbaum I was lucky to study with in person.