Curiosity and Consistency: How people managers can empower and grow diverse teams

June 1, 2023

As a woman of color who has spent most of my career coming up in a field dominated by men, I was fortunate enough to have been encouraged to advocate for myself—for the way I work best and the circumstances that enable me to achieve my best results. I recognize that not everyone is fortunate enough to have those opportunities, and this realization led me on a journey to help other people have the same supportive work environment.

I’ve worked with a lot of leaders and founders on how to support their teams, so it gave me great pleasure to have the opportunity to sit with my friend, Will Guerra, Head of Culture, Innovation, & Strategy at tEQuitable, to chat about how we can develop managers to empower diverse teams.

Will shared that it was when he found himself in a management consulting role—where he had the opportunity to work on some pretty significant cultural transformation work with large organizations—that he really discovered his passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion. It gave him “the language to finally understand all the experiences that I had in my life…and of course, from a professional perspective, it just helped me lean even more into [becoming] a better people manager.”

Framing Diversity

What do we mean when we talk about diverse teams? What is diversity? According to Will, a diverse team is a “group of individuals who have different backgrounds and skills that work together to achieve common goals. They might have differences regarding age, nationality, ethnicity, education, professional background, skills, and of course, different ways of thinking,”  and the data shows that diverse teams can outperform less diverse groups by over 30%. We know that diverse teams can increase creativity and innovation. They are better at problem-solving and decision-making. And we also know that individuals can develop and expand their existing skill sets by working collaboratively within a diverse environment—all of which points to increased engagement and reduced turnover. Will says, “This is where leaders need to make sure that everyone feels that they have a voice and contribute to the work of creating space for everyone to feel included, no matter what their role is...what we’re talking about [here] is inclusion.” 

How Do We Do Inclusion? 

Will made some great points about the benefits of diversity and inclusion. When we think about creating diverse teams within organizations, we need to think about a duality. Many organizations are putting resources toward supporting DEI initiatives, and there are many things going on in the People space showing that work is being done to increase inclusion in the workplace. But, I would argue that there’s a big difference, a disconnect between doing inclusion (i.e., making public diversity statements, advertising inclusive policies) and being inclusive. We need to focus on our intentions, like how do we show up as leaders and organizations to support and build diverse teams? It’s a critical but overlooked area of focus. Organizations may be hiring from diverse, marginalized, non-traditional groups, but if the intention behind that is purely so that the numbers look good, “we were able to hire so that our customers are happy,” then we’re not coming from the right intention. If the intentions are not aligned, the implementation will not land well. 

What Leaders Should Think About

According to Will, what leaders do makes up to a 70% difference in whether an employee will report feeling included. This is important because the more people feel included, the more likely they will share ideas, go that extra mile, and collaborate with peers. So leaders should ask themselves, first and foremost, “How I contribute to an inclusive environment?” Leaders also need to reflect on:  

  • Listening to and valuing all contributions equally, 
  • Allowing people to be their authentic selves, 
  • Creating an environment where people feel safe speaking up or having dissenting views, and
  • Showing up as vulnerable and authentic in front of their team 

Building a diverse team is just the start. Nurturing a diverse team and sharing your own moments of growth as an individual and as an authentic leader is where the magic happens. Doing inclusion without being mindfully inclusive risks demoralizing and alienating diverse employees. People may begin to feel like I’m the diversity hire, which can create unrest within the team if the support systems are lacking. 

Humility is an Undervalued Skill

Being inclusive takes practice. It also takes skills that many leaders still need to be taught. Will suggests that humility is undervalued and a skill not often developed in emerging leaders.

“The main blocker…it’s about humility. Managers get stuck on feeling like they need to have all the answers. An inclusive leader understands that having a humble approach opens you up to challenging your assumptions, adopting a learning orientation, and being open to receiving feedback from others. So inclusive leaders ask questions before asserting their own opinion. They are comfortable not always being right and open to learning from others—so they’re actively curious about the people they lead.”

This curiosity is tremendously important because not only does curiosity help you learn about your people, it helps you become a more approachable leader. And, of course, the result of this is that your team feels safe offering their ideas and perspectives, leading to a more collaborative environment. 

But realistically, inclusive leadership comes from all levels within the organization. Junior team members are capable of demonstrating inclusive leadership. We all need to do the work of being. With the right organizational support in place, the doing comes from a more intentional space, creating systems that foster diversity and inclusion.