No bad ideas or silly questions: How to facilitate a truly inclusive culture

23 January, 2024

A truly inclusive culture relies on belonging, trust, and psychological safety. Here are the practical steps leaders (or anyone) can use to foster inclusion and belonging, and create an environment where people feel comfortable, and the best ideas emerge.

Business success is often built on great ideas. Anyone who has ever participated in a brainstorming session knows you have to reject some ideas to get to the great ones. Unfortunately, many people are afraid to share their ideas at work, which means a lot of great ideas could never see the light of day.

This means that many workplaces fall short of a truly inclusive culture, where employees feel a sense of belonging that is essential to a productive, engaging employee experience.

Jyotsna Manikantan, Director of Product Management at ADP, understands that inclusive culture and feelings of belonging are about people, humanity, and humility. During her long tenure at ADP, Manikantan celebrates the relationships that reflect ADP's inclusive culture and offers advice business and team leaders can use — during brainstorming sessions, meetings and in one-on-one communication — to help all employees feel comfortable speaking up, whether that's making a suggestion, highlighting a problem, or offering constructive feedback.

The role psychological safety plays in inclusion

A key identifying feature of a truly inclusive culture is the abundant presence of psychological safety. While research illustrates many organisations lack high levels of psychological safety, it is something leaders can cultivate. When people experience psychological safety at work, they are more willing to participate in collaborative brainstorming and problem-solving, share ideas, and express their perspectives.

Connection is the foundation of psychological safety in the workplace. "When we connect first and you take time to get to know them and build relationships, the partnership just blossoms," Manikantan notes. "The [level of] productivity is something that you could not have thought about. The possibilities are wide open and that's because you've created that psychological safety that confirms they belong, and their voice is welcome to be heard, to make it matter."

3 best practices for fostering inclusion

The most effective way for leaders to create psychological safety and trust in the workplace is, not surprisingly, leading by example. The strategies that leaders can use to build inclusion and belonging are the same behaviours and practices that work among colleagues, whether it's among operational team members or members of a project team.

As Manikantan explains, sometimes there is more familiarity among project teams than there is among people who report to the same manager, and these techniques can help build relationships no matter what the organisational structure.

There are three things anyone can do to foster inclusion and belonging at work:

1. Learn something personal about one another

Building inclusion and belonging means seeing and accepting employees and coworkers as whole human beings. The most effective way to do that is by learning about people's lives outside of work. This is not to suggest you must share private information, but knowing something about a person's family, hobbies, or other interests offers a context and builds trust. To work, this must be a two-way street, so be prepared to share as well as learn.

2. Proactively engage and ask for feedback and contributions

As Manikantan points out, many meetings include people who speak a lot and people who speak very little. Whether you're a project leader or simply a team member, you can make space for quieter voices to build inclusion.

"Are we paying attention to the people who are quiet at the table?" asks Manikantan. "[Being quiet is] not necessarily about whether a person knows something or doesn't know something. It's more about the aspects of culture in some cultures. For some, speaking out is forbidden. It is just the way you're raised. A person coming from that particular culture may be very reserved — not because they don't know anything. So never assume that silence is the absence of knowledge."

Manikantan recommends that team and project leaders extend a clear and intentional invitation for people to share. Not "does anyone have anything to add?" but a personal, individual recognition of value. "You can say 'I know you have been processing this conversation, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this,'" she explains. "Engage them and make space for them to share their voice and thoughts." This is something you might do on the spot during a meeting, or if a person's personality means they are more comfortable discussing ideas one-on-one, you might invite them to chat about their thoughts over coffee or tea.

These interactions translate to remote and hybrid workers, too. It's the attention that builds connection, not the sharing of physical space.

3. Intentionally create equal time for everyone to contribute

If you're holding a series of meetings around a project or other initiative, make a plan to include those who consistently stay out of the conversation. Consider hosting a follow-up meeting so those who didn't get a chance to speak can voice their thoughts. Or, Manikantan advises, "next time start with a [roll call] of people who have been observing [but not speaking]. Invite them to share what they are seeing that others are missing. Let us be more receptive to hear new ideas and challenge our thought processes so we can make an impact to win together."

Celebrating our differences and our common ground

One key to diversity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace is celebrating our differences — the varied ethnicities, religions, gender identities, life experiences, and personalities that make each person unique. But at the same time, it's crucial to acknowledge common ground, whether that's a shared project, a mutual adoration for a certain pop singer or simply coming together over gratitude for being alive.

When we find ways to celebrate our differences while recognising what we have in common, we create an environment where everyone feels safe to be their authentic self. And with that creates opportunities to share ideas and sew seeds that may become the big innovations of tomorrow.

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