Effective leadership nurtures belonging and a sense of community. Being able to address indirect or overt behaviors, beliefs, or unconscious biases that create separation or the feeling of exclusion is a necessary skill given the speed of change. For individuals faced with disenfranchising behaviors and attitudes, there are coping skills and important mindset practices that can be developed to effectively navigate a successful career.
Now more than ever, the ability to nurture relationships, communicate with respect, and model a coaching perspective are essential for our collective and individual success. Learn how to actively support all your people—including yourself—and you will attract the best talent and add to your bottom line through increased engagement and retention.
All Humans Crave Belonging
We are hardwired for belonging and connection—something we all need for fulfillment, according to social scientist Brené Brown in her New York Times best seller Daring Greatly. Brown defines “belonging” as “the innate human desire to be a part of something larger than us.”1 Importantly, belonging is different than fitting in. “Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”2
A true team experience fosters belonging in its members. Team qualities—trust, connection, and a shared sense of purpose—are foundational for high performance. Understanding the environments and behaviors that work against those ideals is fundamental for effective leadership, whether one is simply leading in one’s own career, the lead attorney on a matter, or the head of a department or firm.
Most of us have felt like an outsider at one time or another, regardless of our gender, race, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing factor over which we have no control. Even something as simple as the geographic location of team members or education can create an unconscious barrier to the free flow of information, knowledge, and inclusion of all team members.3
What Actions Trigger an “Us vs. Them” Culture?
Actions that create noninclusion and a feeling of being an outsider are fairly straightforward. They typify behaviors that exclude through failure to acknowledge another’s presence, the value of a contribution, or even someone’s existence. The individuals participating in the behaviors are many times oblivious to their actions and the overall impact on the “other.” They know not what they do. However, this does not make it right. The challenge is to wake them up, create awareness of the group dynamic, and develop leadership that promotes collaborative and inclusive behaviors.
Leadership also needs to be willing to expressly state that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. This requires follow-through with holding members accountable for unacceptable actions. Overt bias in the form of bullying, shunning, exclusive cliques, or biting sarcasm cannot be allowed to exist. These are poison for a culture of belonging.
Overt biased behaviors are often insidious in their disguise as humor or a compliment but are much more direct in their disenfranchisement. They draw attention to the “different”—the “other”—by overtly stating a characteristic that sets a person or group apart from those in power. They are by their design intended to distance, undermine, and subvert the power of the targeted individual or group.
For example, when the judge and opposing counsel start to talk about a female attorney in the third person as if she were not there or comment on her looks, it is awkward at best and disarming or upsetting at worst. Disguised as a compliment, this is a quintessential tactic for undermining power. Oftentimes, just ignoring the comments and going on with the hearing is about all she can do in that situation. After all, attorneys pick their fights with the judge carefully—so as not to jeopardize the client’s position. Grin and bear it, move on, and do not let such behaviors be a distraction.
When these sorts of blatant excluding comments are made by those in your firm, care is required to address the politics of the situation. When behaviors or comments are direct and combative, disengagement or seeking the assistance of senior leadership (which may or may not be supportive) is more often a good call. Unfortunately, many times the one who makes a complaint or highlights an unfair or discriminatory position ends up taking the brunt of the fallout in the end. Those individuals are frequently labeled as not having a sense of humor or being “too sensitive.” The one treated as the “other” is often in a no-win situation.
It cannot be overstated: firm and corporate leadership are indispensable in effectively addressing these types of harmful cultures and behaviors of exclusion. Only through modeling appropriate behaviors, acknowledging and valuing differences, and creating a coaching culture where everyone can contribute meaningfully will a culture of belonging develop. It takes time but is well worth it in the ultimate productive environment engendered by high-functioning teams. Learn how to actively support all your people, and you will attract and retain the best talent and, ultimately, clients.
What Can You Do as a Leader to Foster a Collaborative, Inclusive Environment?
Here are a few starting tips for nurturing your people and setting aside internal competition and divisiveness. Save the advocacy and combativeness for the opposition.
- Model the behavior you seek to cultivate. If leadership is not congruent and fails to act in a manner that supports their stated goals, your team will notice. The whole “Do as I say, not as I do” standard will not create a cohesive culture. This requires you to do the hard work on yourself and become more self-aware of your patterns, habits, unconscious biases (we all have them), and emotional triggers. The hard work is not easy—that is why it’s called hard work, but you, and by extension your team, will benefit tremendously.
- Give everyone a chance at the table. Encourage those who are more reserved to speak up. Invite them to comment with a simple “What do you think?” or “Do you have anything you would like to add?” Make it a safe place for everyone to speak up and add value. Allow follow-up to the discussion through email or in private. Some individuals need more time to process. As people realize that their input is valued, and that you are trustworthy, they will contribute more in meetings.
- Foster healthy communication patterns. Is there a person (or group) who constantly dominates the conversation? Allow their participation but curb the excess by reminding all that everyone’s feedback and thoughts are valued. Consider having a time limit for everyone’s contribution. If some individuals talk over others, remind them, nicely, that someone else is providing input. If the talkers do not reasonably curtail their behavior, pull them aside in private and ask for their cooperation. They may not realize that their behavior is not team-oriented and, ultimately, will not be rewarded.
- Spread the opportunities equitably and be transparent. Ask individuals who are not volunteering or who previously were not given an opportunity if they are interested in stepping up. You may be surprised. Women in particular tend to believe that they will be rewarded for their efforts in due time or have been culturally trained not to be as assertive. Do not assume they are happy riding shotgun and do not want to drive. Studies show that most women are just as ambitious as their male counterparts. Have objective reasons for assigning one individual over another. Write them out for yourself, if necessary. Make your decision process transparent. Fairness and transparency are vital.
- Consistently communicate the collaborative, inclusive ideal. Effective communication requires much more than simply having a diversity statement on your website. It means actively getting to know people, encouraging participation, holding individuals accountable if they are not being inclusive (e.g., gossiping, excluding from informal groups, blaming/scapegoating, etc.), and supporting and mentoring members as they develop. The message needs to be deep to sustain the change required for inclusion.
As an Individual, How Can You Combat a Noninclusive Experience?
If you find you are experiencing a noninclusive environment, it is important to have some tools to effectively address your reaction and a strategy for moving forward.
- Acknowledge and be aware of how you are being treated. Allow yourself to feel the normal reactions of anger, disbelief, shame, or similar discomfort at experiencing that feeling of being an outsider. If you bury or deny your feelings, they ultimately resurface later as depression, an illness, or a volatile angry explosion at home—somehow, they will resurface in a manner that is not healthy or productive.
- Understand that you do not have to react right away. Give yourself time to process. Unless you are comfortable calling people out directly and you implicitly trust your instincts, taking a breath, sorting through feelings, and developing a rational strategy prior to reacting often make the most sense.
- Do not take things personally. This is easier said than done and essential for your success and mindset. Understand that while the behaviors or statements you experience are not okay, many times they are performed without conscious intent. Similarly, the small-mindedness of those who seek to disenfranchise you as a part of a group says much more about their insecurities and inner conflicts. It really is not personal in the broader scope, even when something is said with the intent to undermine your confidence. Do not let it.
- Practice resilience and grit: your reaction is a choice. Disengaging from a group may or may not serve your best interest. Especially at work, learning to step up and into your rightful place at the table can feel risky—particularly when you have been ignored or belittled by other practice group members or team leaders. Learning to stand up, dust yourself off, and go back in ready to fully participate is a skill. It is a practice of grit and resilience and something to cultivate.
- Find mentors, sponsors, and a support system that understand your environment. There are lots of amazing people who are willing and more than able to provide inspiration, insight, and valuable advice for navigating politics and team dynamics successfully. A coach can also be helpful—preferably one with life experience in a similar environment to yours and coaching credentials demonstrating tools for helping you move through challenges.
- Pick your battles. Just because someone is a jerk does not mean you need to let it impact you or disempower you. While it is good to feel a normal reaction, some things are not worth your attention, energy, or time. Let it roll off your back and realize that their actions say everything about them and are not a reflection of you. Keep it real. If needed, plan your exit strategy and move on to a healthier environment.
These tips are simply a beginning for leaders and individuals wanting to fend off disengagement and to create a culture of inclusivity and belonging.
1. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead 231 (2012).
2. Id. at 232.
3. Amy C. Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy 194 (2014).