Reader Question: Building an Inclusive Team

I got an interesting email from a reader who is setting up a new lab and wonders if I have any advice about how to set it up to be as inclusive as possible. I decided to give my answer publicly, so that others can provide ideas, too.

First of all, let me state what informs my answer. I have never set up a new lab (I haven’t done lab work in years), but I have hired a team for a new group, and I’ve expanded existing teams.  I have worked in labs, and on various other teams, run by managers with different styles. I’ve made a practice of paying attention to what works and what doesn’t, and I try to read broadly about management practices, too. I can’t speak to any aspects of hiring that are specific to academia, so my ideas will be more about the general question of creating an inclusive culture on your team.

I am not going to deal with truly egregious issues, such as having one member of your team accuse another member of sexual harrassment or other illegal behavior. If this happens, you need advice from someone who understands employment law in your location, not a random person on the internet.

Instead, I’m going to assume that you have no immediate issues, and just want to think about how to do your part to making work a place where everyone feels comfortable and able to contribute to their fullest.

The first thing I’d do is learn about implicit bias, and develop a strategy to combat implicit bias in hiring, assigning work, evaluating work, mentoring… in everything, really. I wrote earlier about how learning about implicit bias made me a better manager. I still have not seen any research that really shows how to effectively combat your own implicit biases, so I can’t say “do X and you’ll avoid bias problems!” but I do think that you’re more likely to avoid problems with your biases if you are aware of them. I continue to find the process of just asking myself “would I think that about someone of a different race/gender/sexual orientation/etc?” to be really informative for helping me identify my biases.

Your team will run into biases from people other than just you. Sometimes, these biases will change how they need to respond to certain situations. Sometimes, advice you might give someone in one group will be horribly wrong if you give it to someone in another group. Since part of the role of a manager is to mentor their team members and help guide them through institutional politics, learn about the limits of your standard advice. Cate Huston has written a useful post about how to think through your advice and check whether it is general advice or just “advice for white men.”

Another really important thing a manager can do to build an inclusive culture is to work to avoid some of the seemingly neutral things that actually hurt some groups more than others. For instance, think about how you run your meetings, and how disagreements are handled. Do you have a discussion culture or an argument culture? I’ve written elsewhere about how an argument culture can be harder for some people to navigate than others. Also pay attention to who speaks in your meetings and who doesn’t. You don’t have to let meetings just happen. If you’re the boss, you’re implicitly in charge of the meeting, and you can make sure all voices get heard. Learn how to run a meeting well.

Also look at how your projects run. Are there a lot of last minute emergencies? Or can people generally see what will be required of them at least a week or two ahead of when it is needed, so that they can plan their work accordingly? Work to develop a system that gives people as much visibility into future work and predictability about their schedule as possible. This will make it easier for anyone on your team who has caregiving responsibilities at home. It will also make everyone happier.

If you don’t know how to organize your work so that projects run fairly smoothly, learn. Or hire someone who does, then empower and appreciate that person. “How to run projects” is far too big of a topic to cover in a single blog post, but if you browse through the archives here, you’ll find some ideas.  If I had to pick one thing to do to make your projects run more smoothly, I’d say visualize the work and make sure everyone can see the visualization. This is just one way to increase transparency for your team. If you like the idea of transparency but not the idea of visualizing your work, there are other ways to increase transparency, too. The great thing about transparency is that it helps your team fill in the gaps in the plan (there are always gaps in the plan), and your projects will run better.

When a crisis happens—because even on the best run projects with the most impressive teams, sometimes things just go wrong—definitely thank and reward the people who rescued the situation. But then pivot and analyze why the crisis happened. Yes “things just went wrong,” but usually there was a process failure or a misunderstanding that allowed things to go wrong. Consider running a root cause analysis, such as a “five whys” meeting, to understand what happened. The point isn’t to assign blame, but to understand what led to the crisis so that a similar problem does not happen in the future. If you do this enough, your team will begin to understand that while you have their backs when something goes wrong, you don’t expect them to always operate in crisis mode.

While you’re rewarding people, make sure you reward the people who keep things running and make sure there aren’t crises, as well as the people who put in heroic efforts to resolve crises.  If you only reward heroes who rescue you from crises, you’ll have more crises, because people like rewards and tend to put their effort into what is rewarded.

When the root cause of a problem was that you made a mistake: take responsibility and apologize. When the root cause of a problem is that someone else made a mistake, accept their apology and move on. Consider also asking one more question: What could you have done so that they wouldn’t have made the mistake? Assume your people are smart and competent and want to do the right thing. Why did this person choose the wrong thing? Was information missing? Was the task misunderstood? You don’t have to make a big deal out of this, but by asking these questions, you’ll start to understand how to make sure everyone on the team has what they need to succeed, even if their assumptions and default actions are informed by a cultural background that is different than yours.

Finally, make sure you notice the outcomes of your decisions and actions. I’ve written about this elsewhere, too: it is easy  to get so caught up in the far too many things that need to be done NOW to take the time to notice what happened with what you did yesterday, but if you don’t take the time to notice outcomes, you’re missing out on the best way I know to learn and grow as a manager and mentor. There is no one right way to do any of this. Every team and every situation is unique. The only way to get better at leading a team is to let them tell you what you can do better. They probably won’t tell you directly. No one wants to criticize the boss. But if you pay attention, their actions and words will tell you where you can improve. Listen, and learn.

And now I’ll throw the question open for other readers. What things do you think help build inclusive teams? Tell us in the comments.


This has nothing to do with the topic of the post, except perhaps for the fact that someone setting up a new lab may also need to level up their time management skills, but: I’m enrolling for the live session of my Take Control of Your Time seminar, which will teach you how to diagnose your time use issues and introduce some tools and techniques that can help you address them. 

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