The problem: While some people on your team (extroverts, for example) may process information best when speaking out loud, other team members (for example: introverts, neurodivergent team members, people who work in their nonnative language) can benefit from having time to pause and extract their insights in silence. When we attempt to use a ‘one size fits all’ approach to coaching conversations, we fail to bring out the best in each individual.
Inclusive coaching means giving each
person on your team optimal thinking time.
The fix: Ask each person on your team how they prefer to get help thinking through problems (for example: talk face to face, get questions in advance, type over chat). If you notice that some people go quiet when you ask questions, try putting together an agenda in advance or breaking up the conversation into two parts with time to “marinate” on the situation in between conversations.
The problem: As humans, so many of our reactions to other people’s behaviors have to do with expectations we hold about them (often unconsciously) based on identities like race, age, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, etc. For example, while “ambition” might be perceived as a positive characteristic in a male coworker, these very same behaviors might be labeled negatively as “aggression” in a female coworker. As a result, the feedback we give can risk perpetuating stereotypes and deeply ingrained social norms rather than helping each individual on your team perform at their best.
Want to minimize how much bias seeps into the feedback you give?
Before delivering feedback, ask yourself: “What is the impact of their behavior?” and
“Would I give this feedback to someone with a different identity?"
The fix: Before delivering your feedback, do an impact check. Challenge yourself by asking, “Would I give this feedback to a person with a different identity?” For example, perhaps the coworker your brain labeled as “aggressive” speaks louder than other people on your team. Consider whether it might just be different from what you’ve been socialized to expect or an actual problem. As a leader in your organization, you also have the power to support others in checking the fairness of their feedback. For example, you might ask, “If you were to give this person feedback on this topic, how might you clarify the impact of their behavior? What do you think is causing the impact? How significant is it?”
The problem: The concept of time might seem objective (one minute is 60 seconds everywhere in the world), but time norms vary greatly by culture. Across and even within countries, people differ in their fluid versus fixed time expectations. Cultural upbringing impacts how we each interpret time, from “ASAP” to “10AM” to “later.” Fixed-time cultures (places like Germany, Japan, and the United States) expect that time is literal, whereas fluid-time cultures (places like India, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia) interpret time as adaptable (Meyer 2014). While a tendency toward fixed time may result in greater efficiency, a fluid time approach can create more space for creativity and connection. When we don’t make implicit expectations about time explicit, we risk conflict, distrust, and lost productivity.
Time expectations vary by culture, so take the time to talk about time
with your team. Set norms for meetings, deadlines, and anywhere
else where time can become a source of tension.
The fix: Don’t take lateness or an insistence on timeliness as a sign of disrespect. Make time to talk about time. Decide on time norms that are best for your work together. Working successfully across cultures (both geographic and individual) might mean finding a balance between time integrity and spontaneity. And if a fixed time is ever truly necessary, don’t forget to link up to explain why it matters.
The problem: Autonomy is a key driver of engagement and performance, but distributing autonomy equally is challenging. It is easier to give autonomy to people we trust, and it is easier to trust people who share our characteristics and perspectives. When we don’t trust people on our team, we ask for more status checks, give more direction, or sometimes even label them as incapable of doing good work. We are even more likely to do this when we hold stereotypes and biases (for example: they’re lazy or unintelligent). Autonomy blockers lead to lower motivation and decreased performance while making it difficult for managers to delegate work.
Use your one-on-ones to ask autonomy-boosting questions like: “How satisfied
are you with how much direction versus freedom you have at work?”
“What’s an area at work you’d like to have more ownership over?”
The fix: Audit your autonomy distribution. For one month, notice who you provide opportunities to, how much direction you give, and how much you trust that each team member can do the job well. Check to see if you’ve given every single member of your team at least one area of ownership and responsibility. Ask yourself, “What are they the boss of on our team?” Once you complete your autonomy audit, use your one-on-ones to offer either more guidance or more freedom. Q-step with autonomy-boosting questions like, “How satisfied are you with how much direction versus freedom you have at work?” “What’s an area at work you’d like to have more ownership over?” and “What role would you like me to have in this project, if any?”
The problem: When doing a gap analysis or UC Check, it can be tempting to assess impact only on the majority of impacted individuals. Sometimes this assessment strategy is sufficient, but sometimes it masks the experience of people who are in the minority. For example, imagine you send your team members an engagement survey and find that eight out of 10 people feel a close bond with the team. While 80% may seem like a solid score, it’s worth investigating why two people on your team feel disconnected if it’s something within your scope of control. Perhaps your alcohol-fueled happy hour tradition leaves them feeling excluded if they don’t drink because of health, faith, or other personal reasons. Perhaps jokes that make most of the team laugh leave two people feeling hurt. The number of people you impact negatively might be small, but the degree of impact might be significant.
Data can sometimes mask the experience of people who are in the
minority, so be sure to check if there are differences among groups.
The fix: While it’s difficult (if not impossible) to please everyone, it’s worth taking the time to find ways to reduce harm and increase inclusion for everyone. Finding solutions that work for a diverse group of people can be harder, but it also allows you to leverage your team’s differences and bring out the best in each individual. You can do this by asking ritual inclusion questions on your own and with your team like: “Whose perspective haven’t we considered?” and “Will this solution work for everyone?” And when looking at numbers (for example: average engagement, retention, salary, performance), parse out the data to see if meaningful differences emerge between different groups.
The problem: Even though diversity can lead to more innovation and better decisions, only teams with roughly equal conversational turn-taking (similar amount of time spent talking) get to reap the full rewards (Google’s Project Aristotle 2012). For example, extroverts, fluent language speakers, and people whose social identities are in the majority might tend to take more air time than others, including talking more and interrupting people who are speaking. The result? Voices in the room are left unheard, and the entire team’s productivity, engagement, and creativity suffers.
Diversity can lead to more innovation and better decisions,
but only teams with roughly equal conversational turn-taking
get to reap the full rewards.
The fix: Invite your team to co-create meeting norms, including norms that make it easier for all people to participate. Send your agenda in advance so more internal thinkers can come prepared. Use round-robins, especially at the start of your meetings. And deliberately ‘track completion’ ensuring that everyone gets to finish their thoughts, even if they were interrupted. For example, you might say: “Hey, before we move on -- I noticed Tam didn’t get to finish that thought. I want to make sure we get to hear everyone’s ideas.” In short, make it your job to monitor turn-taking and strive for equal airtime.
The problem: An important psychological factor that will influence your team’s comfort with change is tolerance for ambiguity. Folks differ in their need for clarity and certainty as a result of culture, personality, past experience, and current stressors. Neurodivergence can also go hand-in-hand with ambiguity aversion (Fujino et. al. 2017). This means that while some people on your team will find it easy to “go with the flow” others will experience a higher degree of stress in response to change (Hancock and Mattick 2020).
Leading change pro-tips: (1) Emphasize that there is no one “normal” way
to feel about change. (2) Create certainty in the timing of your communication
(ex: every Monday) even if you can’t offer certainty of information.
The fix: Validate people’s reactions to change, emphasizing that there is no one “normal” way to feel about it. Create certainty in the timing of your communication (for example sending an update every Monday morning) even if you can’t offer certainty of information. Encourage team members to write down their questions and concerns so that you can address them systematically. And keep helping people identify what is known, predictable, and within their control to balance ambiguity and unpredictability with certainty.
The problem: Research shows that 50% of our career success depends on our social networks (Burt 2015). For people who might be the first in their network to access a certain type of job or degree of career success, forming a robust professional network is challenging. For example, people of color face more barriers finding mentors than white employees (Ragins and Cotton 1991) and end up looking outside of their companies to find help with their careers (Thomas 1990). For employees without a broad network, this can be a daunting and challenging task. Without mentors and role models, employees have less access to career growth and contribution opportunities.
Our social networks are a major driver of career growth.
Help your team expand their networks by making
The fix: Help team members use the “Exposure” strategy in the 3E Model to unlock access to growth and learning. Consider if the employees on your team have access to role models (especially people who share their identities) within your company. If not, help connect them to professional networks or people from other organizations who may share similar identities and experiences. Use the network you’ve developed as a leader to help folks on your team access mentors. Ask questions like, “What are you looking for in a mentor?” “What are the three most important traits of a mentor for you?” and “Who can introduce you to or help you connect with who might help you in your career?”
The problem: When people hold stereotypes about individuals they see as ‘outgroup’ members, they tend to ask them fewer questions (Trope and Thompson 1997). It’s as though our brains fail to shift into curiosity mode because we already hold (unconscious) assumptions about people’s perspectives. The result? Some of your team members feel less seen, valued, and trusted than others, and thus less able to do their best work.
When we hold stereotypes about people, we tend to ask them
fewer questions. The fix? Start conversations with each of your
team members by asking at least one question.
The fix: Notice if you are Q-stepping with some people more than others, and commit to using your Q-step habit with every team member, especially when you’re asking your team members for their input. Be sure to distribute your social or small talk questions equally as well, taking the time to get to know each member of your team on a personal level beyond their job description.
The problem: It can be easy to immediately compare other people’s experiences with our own. Instead of pausing to play back what we heard, we assume we understood because we have been in similar situations. Misunderstanding is especially common between people with different backgrounds, identities, and experiences. Assumptions prevent us from listening well, and prevent the other person from feeling heard. These simple communication barriers can quickly become massive productivity and relationship-building barriers.
Great listeners stay curious and focus on truly hearing others
instead of getting distracted by their own experience.
The fix: Slow down and take extra care to play back what you’re hearing from others to confirm understanding and to show that you’re listening. When you notice yourself making an assumption, make this implicit assumption explicit. For example, you might say, “I’m guessing that you feel _____ about the situation but that might just be my assumption. Is that how you see it?” To play back effectively, stay curious and focus on truly hearing what others say rather than becoming distracted by your own experience.
The problem: Bias and discomfort can lead us to give some people blurrier feedback than others. For example, one study analyzed 200 performance reviews and found that women receive blurrier developmental feedback than men (Correll and Simard 2016). Receiving blurry feedback means getting less access to meaningful development opportunities. Imagine no one told you that you had spinach in your teeth (for years) and instead shared blurry messages about your lack of “executive presence.” The impact is obvious on an individual level, and it can also operate on a systemic level, with employees from underrepresented groups getting less support in their professional growth. Psychologist David A. Thomas has called one common reason for blurry feedback ‘protective hesitation’ -- meaning that we hesitate to give feedback when we fear it could make us look biased (Thomas 2001). Paradoxically, this attempt to avoid looking bad can mean we are supporting some members of our team less than others.
Protective hesitation’ makes us hesitate to give feedback
when we fear it could make us look biased. The impact?
We invest in some people’s development more than others.
The fix? Give all of your team members clear, actionable feedback.
The fix: If you notice discomfort or protective hesitation, push yourself to identify the concrete, observable behavior you can share as feedback. To increase your chances of being clear, go meta: ask for feedback on the clarity and usefulness of your feedback. And to make the feedback conversations as comfortable and helpful as possible, ask each person on your team what they’d like to get feedback on so you can stay on the lookout for their development.
The problem: Validation statements reduce stress and increase the ease that people feel at work, ultimately leading to better collaboration and better performance. Feeling trusted and supported tends to be especially important to people on your team who have experienced discrimination and microaggressions. Frequent exposure to microaggressions (comments, actions, or inactions that expose a bias or stereotype) leads to chronic stress, increased risk for anxiety, performance problems, and distrust of others (Kim, Nguyen, & Block 2017).
Want to build psychological safety? Even if you can’t relate to someone’s emotional reaction, validate that what they’re experiencing is real
and that you’re grateful they trusted you with their thoughts.
The fix: Even if you don’t understand an individual’s experience or emotional reaction to a situation, validate that what they’re experiencing is real and that you are grateful they trusted you with their thoughts. Be careful about attempting to prove your understanding by sharing your own similar experiences. Instead, validate and Q-step. For example: “I can imagine how difficult that was. What’s something that might be helpful for you right now?”
The problem: Even managers who do a great job delegating work to their team may be at risk of perpetuating an assignment gap because of their implicit biases. For example, we are more likely to assign high-value, high-visibility work to people we know and trust and lower-value, lower-visibility work to everyone else. What’s more, women and people of color tend to do more work that’s perceived as low value than their white and/or male colleagues (Williams and Multhaup 2018). This gap in who has access to the work that links up to the company’s priorities, creates unequal access to contribution and career development opportunities.
Are you creating an assignment gap? This week: check to make sure you are distributing high-value, high-visibility work equally across your team.
The fix: Deliberately distribute high-value work equally throughout your team. Do an audit now to see if you tend to delegate more prestigious, high priority, or visible work to some people on your team than others. Ask yourself what each of the responsibilities you’ve delegated link up to. If you notice an assignment gap, come up with ideas to close it. For example, you might want to offer more coaching to some employees so they can take on more responsibilities or you might choose to keep a spreadsheet to track who you’ve assigned each task. Pro-tip: make it easy for your team, your manager, and others across the organization to see why your team members’ work matters. Share how the work each person is doing links up to company priorities.
The problem: Taking breaks and pausing may be more accessible to some people than others. For example, parents and other caregivers might not have the luxury of getting a full eight hours of sleep, let alone unwinding after work or over the weekend. Similarly, certain employees may worry that they’ll be seen as lazy for taking a break because of existing stereotypes about their identities (e.g., race, age, gender, class, etc.). This ‘stereotype threat’ -- the fear of confirming a negative stereotype -- harms performance and overall wellbeing (Steele and Aronson 1995) of individuals and teams.
Some people on your team may worry that they’ll be seen as lazy
for taking a break because of existing stereotypes about their identities.
The fix? Model and celebrate taking breaks, and help each person
come up with ways to schedule pauses.
The fix: Offer schedule flexibility whenever you can. Help each person on your team come up with ways to make at least small pauses possible. Audit responsibilities on your team to make sure that everyone has enough back up coverage to be able to take time off, whether it is to grab a cup of tea or schedule a doctor’s appointment. And create team-wide pause rituals, from coffee chats to virtual stretch breaks that you participate in as a way to model the importance of taking time to pause.
The problem: Extraction is more than just a strategy for learning -- it is also a way to normalize failure across your team. Failure is harder, scarier, and often more damaging for people on your team who have marginalized or underrepresented identities. They may lack the psychological safety necessary to take risks, leading to stifled creativity and enhanced stress. They may also feel extra pressure to succeed and not make errors because of stereotype threat. By helping your team members extract their learnings, it shows that failure is often just fine and also something we can all benefit from.
Build more psychological safety on your team by turning failures
into learning opportunities. Regularly ask: “What can you learn
from that experience?”
The fix: Extract extract extract! For employees who have limited psychological safety or may be experiencing stereotype threat, it is especially important to reinforce that risks and mistakes are okay and even desirable. When someone isn’t successful, Q-step with Extraction questions: “What did you learn from that project?” “How can that learning help you in the future?” and “What might you do differently next time?” These simple questions can help your team members feel more safe at work, become more engaged, and contribute more fully. For even more impact, be sure to promote (and laugh at) your own failures. Role model turning errors into opportunities for learning to make it safer for everyone else to do.