Make Inclusive Behaviors Habitual on Your Team

In our work as coaches, every time Kimberley was clearly the facilitator of a section at a team offsite, at least one team member would direct their question or comment to Shea. We’re colleagues and peers who frequently trade lead and support roles in events we facilitate, and we’re explicit about who is in which role. So, each time this occurred, it left Kimberley questioning whether the team was intentionally disrespecting her position of authority because she is Black and Shea is white.

As the microaggressions we experienced moved from exception to pattern, we saw the opportunity to shift the arena of DEI development from individuals to teams — because teams can be a significant driver of sustainable change. Our position is that implementation and accountability for inclusion practices live with the team, where real-time interaction happens and real work gets done.

What we call Inclusive Teaming is not about having a diverse team. In fact, there is evidence that diverse teams can underperform homogeneous teams if inclusion is not a habit. Therefore, Inclusive Teaming is not defined by a team with differences, but by a team that actively and productively manages those differences — a team that is in the behavioral habit of inclusion.

Based on our combined 55,000 hours of working with teams and leaders, we’ve identified a set of patterns of behavior that impede Inclusive Teaming. These are symptomatic of the structures that have grown out of systemic racism and can seep into a team’s interactions — whether or not they’re aware of it. We call these Detractor Patterns.

Detractor Patterns ultimately affect the level of cohesion, performance, and results in a team, which can lead to both hard costs (e.g., missing deadlines and performance goals) and soft costs (e.g., losing your best talent). While teams may be keen to identify Detractor Patterns, this is not enough. The work of Inclusive Teaming is remedying them with what we call Amplifier Patterns.

By practicing new behavioral patterns that amplify inclusion — and recommitting to existing ones until they become more habitual behaviors — leaders can shift their teams toward more Inclusive Teaming. Here’s how to do it.

Identify the problem, then match it to the remedy

We often hear from leaders we work with that their teams are “all good.” However, habitual unconscious patterns of exclusion can impact not only individual team members’ experiences of inclusion but also the group’s performance. Our work as team coaches is to make the invisible visible so that teams can make conscious choices about the behavioral patterns that increase inclusion.

The most powerful place to start is to become aware of the team’s Detractor Patterns and then discuss them candidly. With greater awareness, the team can then intentionally choose the corresponding Amplifier Pattern to remedy the Detractor Pattern. Here, we’ll discuss the five patterns we’ve seen most often in our experience and with clients.

From Courtesy Code-Switching to Letting the Person’s Words Be

In one of our client teams, Gloria noticed that the team leader often “translated” what the team was saying to her. Gloria thought, “The leader is acting as if I don’t understand them and they don’t understand me.” This is an example of the Detractor Pattern we call Courtesy Code-switching, where someone code-switches on behalf of another person to “help” them fit in or be understood by the majority group.

As team members take the risk of being more authentic in their speech, expressions, and behaviors in this era of “bringing your full self to work,” to have someone then Courtesy Code-switch for them results in them not feeling accepted and valued, and can lead to their decreased engagement with the team. For example, Gloria began to hold back her perspectives and let her colleagues do more of the speaking. This diluted her contribution of wisdom and experience to the team’s growth and performance.

For Courtesy Code-switching, the counteracting Amplifier Pattern is to Let the Person’s Words Be. In this practice, team members first notice their assumption that someone doesn’t understand what’s being said, then resist the urge to explain the speaker’s words. They’re trusting that people can ask for information and check for understanding themselves. Letting the Person’s Words Be honors who they are in their language and mannerisms, which truly demonstrates acceptance of their authentic self.

In Gloria’s case, we would have coached the team to map how Courtesy Code-switching manifests and then design rules of engagement for how they’ll pause their interaction when they see the pattern and practice the new behavior in the moment.

From Ignoring to Closed-Loop Exchanges

Ignoring is just what it sounds like: A team member is made to feel invisible, overlooked, and undervalued when what they say or do is not acknowledged. Costs are high. The ignored team member feels increased psychological stress and decreased resilience and well-being, and the team loses its talent and expertise.

While one of the more painful Detractor Patterns, the remedy is quite simple: The team commits to Closed-Loop Exchanges — that is, to acknowledge and confirm a communication was received. Common in medical environments for the sake of patient care, Closing the Loop ensures no needs, requests, proposals, etc., are left hanging. For a team practicing this Amplifier, it may sound like this: “I’m acknowledging receipt of your message and will follow up by a certain date.” This increases the team’s ability to recognize and value each other, leading to increased team collaboration and cohesion.

From Gaslighting to Empathetic Mirroring

Gaslighting is when someone brings another person’s reality into question. It’s especially harmful when done by someone in a greater position of identity-based or organizational power. In particular for women of color working in predominantly white spaces, the Gaslighting Detractor Pattern manifests as colleagues doubting or even denying the target’s negative experiences and may sound something like, “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way.”

As the antidote to this subtle Detractor, we recommend Empathetic Mirroring: acknowledging the gaslit person’s experience through paraphrasing, demonstrating understanding, and restoring their sense of reality. This can sound like “I saw what happened; I get it” or “You are not imagining things” or “What would help you regain your confidence?”

For this pattern in particular, it’s critical for the team leader to make a move to correct the person doing the gaslighting. Using direct, candid language, the leader uses their authority to let the person know the impact of their behavior both on the person and the team. The leader can then take a coaching approach, asking the person open-ended questions to support their learning and commitment to more empathetic interactions in the future.

From Tokenism to Mapping Opportunities to Motivators

Tokenism is the practice of assigning projects to, engaging with, or soliciting the voice of team members primarily because they’re part of an underrepresented group. For example, the Black team member gets asked to lead the project serving a minority customer base, or the Hispanic team member is asked to be an ambassador of “the Latinx story” throughout the organization.

Tokenism costs team members’ sense of value for their sincere contributions and diverts their capacity away from opportunities they may be more interested in or effective at. Using the corresponding Amplifier Pattern, Map Opportunities to Motivators, leaders engage team members in work assignments and collaborations based on what matters most to them intrinsically. Matching opportunities to team members’ motivators, as opposed to engaging them primarily for their perceived related identity, supports higher engagement, creativity, and productivity, and may even reduce attrition.

From Boxing Out to Open Bodies

Boxing out is how basketball players keep the ball from the other team by physically blocking them from the hoop. At work, the Boxing Out Detractor Pattern looks like using the body to exclude others. It manifests through nonverbal cues such as avoiding eye contact, turning away, leaning out, crossing limbs, frowning, raising an eyebrow, or rolling eyes. These signals have as much or more impact as spoken words. Every communication — verbal and nonverbal — triggers the release of neurochemicals linked to opening or closing the brain, resulting in increased or decreased degrees of interpersonal trust, and ultimately, individual performance and team cohesion.

There’s no better way to say “you are included” than to offer your full presence through the Open Body Amplifier Pattern. In the most practical sense, the team can make agreements that they will exhibit open bodies to each other — for example, by staying off devices during meetings or keeping their cameras on and facing into the camera in video calls.

Intentionally Pause and Practice New Patterns

Once the team has selected the most game-changing Detractor Pattern and its corresponding Amplifier Pattern to focus on, the work is to collectively commit to ongoing, intentional pausing and practicing to embed the new pattern. Because habitual behavior takes time to change, pausing allows the team to notice, as often as necessary, the Detractor and to intentionally practice the Amplifier — together as a team. When a team chooses to engage this way, it roots the accountability for inclusion with the whole team, not just the leader or HR. The team then has the power to shift to a new norm of behavior and become a beacon for adjacent teams to model.