If you’ve ever played a team sport like soccer or basketball, you quickly learn that while it is helpful to have an “all-star” player, the best teams leverage the talents of all their players on the field and elevate everyone’s game in order to consistently win.

The following are 3 strategies to build inclusive teams:

  1. Align on values – focus on what we share (common goals, work ethic, expectations, etc.)
  2. Encourage diversity of thought – dissenting opinions are helpful!
  3. Enable open communication – using various communication platforms but also engaging everyone “in the room” in the discussion

This philosophy applies to any team, on a court or in the boardroom, and a critical element in developing a winning team is inclusion. Building inclusion takes time and requires leaders to make intentional decisions about engaging every member on the team. There are three strategies for building inclusion I observed while serving in the military, another heavily team-focused environment, and now practice daily here at N2Growth: align on values, encourage diversity of thought, and enable open communication.

Aligning on values brings the focus on what is shared; what do we care about? What problems are we trying to solve? How are we going to work together to achieve our goals? There are many ways to get individuals to align on values. In one extreme, there is the military, where the onboarding process of basic training sets out to align individuals with the values of the organization, and weed out those who are unwilling to conform. Having been through that process, I felt like the values I already shared were strengthened, but the values I did not share felt hollow or unrealistic; eventually, this misalignment with the organization was a key factor in my decision to leave the service. 

On the other side of the spectrum is developing a set of values as a team. This provides a foundation of inclusion, and because this process is collaborative, there is a higher level of investment from those who feel heard and represented by the shared values. Inevitably, this will take more time than if one person decides a set of values for the group, but will most likely include a wider array of ideas and perspectives, and more importantly, be confirmed by the group as their chosen set of values. The process of developing a shared set of values weaves inclusion into the fabric of the team.

Once a team has aligned on values and created their foundation, it is important to continually manage the norms and behaviors that make up the culture. The culture of a team is strongly influenced by both designated and informal leaders; the people on a team who may not have a leadership position but nonetheless inspire respect, and influence others. These people can dominate discussions, whether intentionally or not, so in order to build an inclusive team, it becomes necessary for them to encourage diversity of thought and provide space for dissenting opinions. It helps to ask directly for this type of input or naming someone who has not yet participated in the discussion, to enable this level of discourse that may otherwise be perceived as confrontational or superfluous. When encouraged, people tend to be able to overcome these social barriers. 

Which brings us to the last strategy, enabling open communication. There are many things working against teams when it comes to effective communication; hierarchy, technology, time…there never seems to be enough time! But when it comes to addressing a hierarchy on a team that may be inhibiting communication, this is another important aspect of culture greatly influenced by leadership. If leaders make themselves accessible and engage in open communication, offering transparency and listening when appropriate, it translates as the expected communication style and others will follow suit. 

There are so many mediums in which to communicate, and figuring out what works best for the team will enable greater communication. Technology like instant messaging, video calls, and digital conference rooms can save time, even when teams are in the same building! But these channels have become especially necessary for geographically separated teams.

What tools and strategies are your teams using to facilitate communication and build inclusion?