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The Leader’s Role in Creating an Inclusive and Engaging Work Environment

| February 13, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Brian McDonald is the author of today’s Tuesday Reading. He is the president of MOR Associates an organization he founded in 1983 based on the belief that many organizations do not maximize the contribution most people want to make at work. More recently, he has led the development of the MOR family of leadership programs.
During the past two years there has been a more intentional focus on the leader’s responsibility to create a more inclusive environment in the MOR Leaders Program.

As the workforce becomes more diverse it is increasingly important to help leaders reflect on their responsibility to create an environment that is inclusive. If we want people to ascribe to the philosophy that anyone can lead from anywhere, the environment needs to be conducive not exclusive. 

It can be helpful as leaders develop to outline how the environment each of us creates can invite people to participate, to be engaged and to see our differences as a strength. To help this happen leaders and their colleagues have to create an inviting climate. This theme is now a thread throughout the program rather than a distinct module.
Too often the tendency at an unconscious level is to listen to individuals who see things as we do or hire people in our own image.  Work groups can develop norms or patterns that are unknowingly excluding others.
The leader’s role is to recognize diversity in a multifaceted way and create an inclusive versus exclusive environment. This responsibility is particularly poignant within the hiring process. And, it continues into the on-boarding phase and carries over to how engaged employees are in the workplace.
The goal is to have a workplace where our differences are an asset rather than seen as a source of conflict. The leadership team can adopt strategies at many levels to influence and as a result shape an inclusive environment.

The various individual perspectives can be seen and leveraged as a strength resulting in better outcomes than if there is a dominant person or an inner and outer circle. More diverse teams with constructive norms will outperform more homogenous teams. The Google research1, 2 on teams supports this finding.
In a diverse group if team members have the opportunity to speak in roughly similar time spans and team members read each other’s signals, the Google research has demonstrated these workgroups will outperform others.  Observing non-verbal cues and acting on these to facilitate the interactions of team members can go a long way toward creating a climate where everyone is included. This social awareness coupled with an openness to different points of view versus a judgmental or argumentative dynamic will lead to better outcomes. The research points out when people experience what is called “psychological safety” they more readily engage.
In leadership journeys one lesson repeated from time to time is the acknowledgement of how important it is to hear from each member of the group. In these reflections people realized the novel insights or different ways of solving problems often came from quieter or more introverted members or those with the least tenure. Soliciting input from each team member using an effective group process is something MOR models in our workshops.
It pays to discuss the norms a group intends to adopt or has formed. It is important to design and facilitate a group process that engages everyone. It is useful to appreciate, during an exploration, that there is an open phase followed by a narrowing phase followed by the close.
In the open phase there is an opportunity to think in more divergent ways. In the narrow phase you want to converge on the scenario(s) or solution(s) or strategy before you arrive at an agreement or action. Making sure everyone has the opportunity to be heard and respected is foundational to creating an inclusive environment. Simple process techniques like “I-time” and go-arounds in the workshop demonstrate how to be sure everyone is given an opportunity to speak.

Group Process versus Group Dynamics
Oftentimes, during session one on day two or three, we will ask individuals to articulate the differences between group process and group dynamics. The objective is to have participants observe both how the facilitators are using the group process to engage people and how the group needs to be aware of the norms they may be forming. This is an opportune moment to mention the differences in communication styles. On day one the extroverts may have jumped into the discussion more frequently and the introverts may have spent more time taking all that is happening in and processing.
Participants can be more tuned into the dynamics within the table groups as well as the larger cohort. Are we giving everyone a chance to speak? Are we rotating the reporting out from the table groups or are the same individuals speaking? Are some individuals speaking over others? What norms do we want to set for ourselves so there isn’t an inner and outer circle?
The same could be said for learning styles or paying attention to gender or generational issues as well. Individuals will vary in their preference when it comes to learning. Recognizing what works for you is helpful though appreciating this may not be everyone’s preference is also important. We purposely use a range of techniques to facilitate the learning process to accommodate different styles. In regard to gender, are the women in the group being heard? Do the men suggest the women become the recorders for the group? Are there subtle contests for power in the table groups?
These issues have been raised in the early discussions on group dynamics both by the facilitator as well as the participants. It is helpful to inquire with the group on day two or three what norms have they observed? What behaviors create the climate or undermine the climate we want to establish? Putting a spotlight on our interactions while discussing the broader need to create an inclusive environment has brought out some honest feedback and created a few teachable moments.
Under the Culture Topic
We have started incorporating a discussion on how inclusive the culture is at their school and what contributes to the current way they describe the culture.
The Mental Models Segment Addresses This Directly
In this session, we are helping participants reflect on how their underlying mental models may be influencing their behaviors. Our preferences or biases are discussed directly as an important factor playing into our day-to-day interactions. Whether participants take the Implicit Bias3 test before or during or after, it is worth your sending them a link to make this possible.
One of the themes in the program is “anyone can lead from anywhere” though when some individuals try to do this they aren’t given the same opportunities as others.

As we ask individuals to reflect on their own mental models we can also inquire about the operating norms in their organizations and how we can ensure everyone has a voice.  It will be helpful to mention a few strategies a leader can use to ensure a more inclusive environment.
Modeling the behavior

  • Bringing the topic to the table in the context of how we can do better?
  • Adopting constructive norms for teams or meetings.
  • Using a facilitator for certain sessions.
  • Conducting an employee engagement survey to get data.

Within the Talent Management Module
This issue can come up directly or indirectly under Talent Management as you discuss recruiting, interviewing and hiring. Unconscious bias or long standing processes or outdated job descriptions can all contribute to an organization hiring more of the same rather than drawing in our differences. Many dated job descriptions contain language that may discourage more diverse candidates from applying. Oftentimes the outreach is to traditional candidate pools and as result the pipeline of potential people isn’t very diverse at the outset.

Making sure the interviewing is done by people from different backgrounds can help limit the likelihood we unconsciously hire in our own image.
Developing a well designed on-boarding process provides people with a quicker sense of belonging and can prevent people from feeling this isn’t a welcoming place.
MOR Associates needs to continue to weave this theme into our programs. We all need to make sure everyone has a seat at the table and an opportunity to fully participate. It is in “our best interest” to do so.
.  .  .   Brian


  1.  Google, re:Work
  2. Charles Duhigg, What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, New York Times, February 2016. 
  3. Harvard Implicit Bias Test.