Why Representation Is More Powerful Than Inclusion Alone
Updated: Nov 11
Employee inclusion at all levels is a critical factor for organizational success. Because of the increased speed and urgency with which organizations are forced to adapt to a continually changing business environment, respond to new customer demands and effectively compete with the competition, employee inclusion is more important now than it’s ever been.
Old ways of thinking about business must be replaced with greater innovation, creativity, perspectives and solutions. This requires radical inclusion of people with diverse backgrounds including but not limited to race, ethnicity and culture, sexual orientation, gender, geographical location, technical backgrounds and expertise.
The Advantages Of Inclusion
Besides the advantages of supporting innovation and process improvement mentioned above, there are several other advantages to employee inclusion that improve operational excellence, morale and employee retention including:
Anticipating and preventing breakdowns by including all functional areas impacted by a plan that is mostly developed by one functional area and creating proactive recovery plans.
Giving context to employees who are more task-oriented by including them in the planning process.
Developing future leaders more effectively by educating them on the business, the impact of different functional areas and learning problem-solving/decision-making skills.
Creating a level of shared ownership and accountability by letting employees have a say in planning and finding solutions for moving forward.
The Challenges Of Inclusion
While there is great value in increasing inclusion, there are also many challenges that negatively affect organizations and diminish the impact of inclusion.
It takes time to coordinate and include multiple levels and functions in planning, problem solving and decision making that diminishes short-term effectiveness and efficiency.
There is a cost associated with pulling employees away from their tasks to join in on meetings.
Including others’ input can slow down a meeting, provide so many options and ideas that confusion ensues, slow decision-making and distract from clarity and purpose.
Including others sets up expectations that if one isn’t included, they are being left out, which can diminish commitment, ownership, cooperation and accountability.
Including others without a clear definition of role and purpose for participation can create conflict and confusion.
There can be confusion about who to include and who to leave out.
The Deeper Challenges To Inclusion
The greatest challenges to successfully implementing a culture of inclusion have less to do with the logistics of time or the cost of inclusion and have more to do with the limiting beliefs and emotional reactions that prevent “truly” including others.
It’s easy to bring diverse populations into a meeting, but it’s much harder to listen to their ideas with openness and curiosity, letting go of the need for control or risking the discomfort of doing something different. It takes courage to be open to new solutions, new business models and new ways to execute effectively, and many very successful executives live in fear that’s exhibited by controlling behavior.
Taking Inclusion To The Next Level With Representation
The experiences that we all want to have as human beings are to feel understood, be seen and be valued for our input, effort and contribution to achieving results. Even being included won’t provide that experience if when we are included, we are ignored or not taken seriously.
It’s more important that we feel represented than included. We want to know that we are truly heard, even if our ideas aren’t always implemented. When decisions are getting made, we want to know that the negative impact on us personally was represented and not ignored, even if we couldn’t be personally included in the decision.
The Difference Between Inclusion And Representation
When you don’t know how another person, functional area or organizational level is impacted by solving a problem, making a decision or implementing a change, then you must include those people or areas to ensure representation. In addition to including and representing others’ input and opinions, it’s also important to learn the context and background that shapes their ideas. For instance, everyone comes to these discussions with practical constraints, concerns and ways of thinking so that as we gain understanding, we can better represent in future discussions.
When our focus is on representation, we may not always need to include others to fully represent them. If we aren’t sure, we can include them with the objective of learning about the context, background, different experiences and different perspectives that shape their ideas so that they can be more effectively represented in the future. This makes people feel fully understood and considered, rather than making them feel like they’re part of a token inclusion initiative without authentic representation.
Building The Muscle Of Representation
To begin moving toward an inclusive and representative culture in your organization, take the following steps.
Step 1: Commit to learning from inclusion, not just including people with no end goal.
Step 2: Share the learning received from inclusion for better understanding throughout your organization.
Step 3: Test how well you are representing others without including them by asking them to validate or modify your understanding of their perspective.
Step 4: Begin making plans, decisions and change efforts with an emphasis on representation rather than inclusion and test the speed, accuracy and effectiveness for learning and modification.
Step 5: Clarify the situations in which inclusion, rather than representation, is necessary.
As organizations move to representation rather than inclusion, they get better at understanding the cross-functional and cross-cultural impact on organizational success. This gives the freedom to represent others without the cumbersome act of including everyone in every decision, speeding up problem solving, decision making and effective planning without getting bogged down in endless meetings.
For decades, corporate team building has consisted of style inventories, communication skill building and teamwork games like ropes courses, trust falls and escape rooms. While these activities might bring a team closer together as friends and are certainly fun activities, they have little if anything to do with actually building job-related teamwork.
Building effective teams requires practice at being a team. Just like sports teams and music groups, who practice what they’re going to perform, business teams must practice their performance as a team as well, not just as a group of individuals trying to get along.
Real, effective team building that transforms teamwork, business results and culture must include the following four missing pieces.
A Sense Of The Bigger Organizational Picture
Most teams operate in silos as if they’re the only team in the organization that matters. This creates breakdown within other parts of the organization as each team makes decisions that inevitably affect other functional and business unit teams, causing a ripple effect of unintended consequences that must be dealt with as well as causing wasted resources of both time and money and breeding mistrust and poor relationships between teams.
When functional teams successfully work together under the guidance of a cross-functional leadership team that is aligned around the organization’s strategy, goals and realistic priorities that are effectively resourced, there are fewer miscommunications and breakdowns, quicker decision making and better business results, not to mention a culture of positivity, trust, good communication and quick problem solving.
Getting on the same page about priorities is paramount for team success. Whether it’s a cross-functional team or a functional team, a leadership team or a project team, focusing on agreed-upon top priorities is absolutely necessary.
Many teams have far too many priorities or try to disguise too many priorities into columns or boxes. This results in scattered energy and fragmented efforts that waste resources, create confusion and lead to unnecessary burnout. As a team, you can only work on so many things at once, and being aligned around which things to focus on is the only way to start getting through them at a quick pace without getting bogged down in overwhelm and competition for attention and resources. The goal is “closure” — completing a priority initiative to give room for focusing on a new priority.
Ideally, the senior leadership team will decide on and set priorities for business units and functional teams. This way, the priorities will serve the entire organization, not just a specific area of the organization. After all, customers and shareholders don’t care about specific teams. They care about the company as a whole.
A Team Picture Of Success
A picture of success is not a vision statement. It’s not what the team wants to achieve or a lofty vision of where they’ll be in five years. A picture of success is a concrete document created by the whole team about how they want to function and work together differently to achieve breakthrough results in what they achieve, their teamwork and their reputation with all stakeholders. It must include actual do-differently attitudes and behaviors that the team wants to exhibit within the next six to 12 months.
Agreed-Upon Team Habits
The biggest missing piece I’ve seen in team building for the last 35 years is agreed-upon team habits of collective execution. Team habits are the core foundation of teamwork, which as we all know, makes the dream work. Team habits must be agreed upon by the entire team, be based on the picture of success and be actionable and descriptive for how the team is going to act and behave. For example, a team could have team habits for optimizing their effective and efficient communication within and outside of the team, making decisions in an inclusive and timely manner preventing rehash, or cross-functional problem solving when breakdowns occur.
Having agreed-upon team habits of execution is the only way to be accountable as a team — not just to your manager, but to the other team members you impact, similar to a sports team or music group. If you don’t know what is expected of you for effective teamwork, then it’s hard to be held accountable in a meaningful way. These habits are not formed based on style, politics or personal preferences. They are based solely on what will accomplish desired outcomes in the most effective and efficient manner that can be sustained over time. Having agreed to the habit, each team member is committing to that habit and committing to being held accountable if they fall back into old behavior. This allows each team member to share a unified vision of the team and to support each other in achieving that vision.
Without the above four pieces to a team-building effort, and especially the team habits, a team simply will not learn to work together more effectively. Fun activities and interpersonal bonding may help team members feel more comfortable around each other interpersonally, but they won’t build team trust as it relates to the work the team is doing together, and they won’t give the team any direction as to how to work better together. To improve effectiveness, the team must be on the same page about organizational priorities, a picture of success and team habits.