Why you need inclusive and diverse teams to create belonging

It is the responsibility of leaders to ensure that every person can bring the full extent of their difference to work with them every day, says Rebekah Martin

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When we talk about feeling safe at work, our minds instantly jump to physical safety. But how safe do we feel to speak our minds and voice our opinions? Do we feel empowered to take risks and share ideas? Will we still belong if we bring our whole, authentic selves to work? If your workplace culture is an inclusive one, then hopefully the answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.  

True diversity of thought is only possible when every team member feels psychologically safe enough to speak their mind and express their point of view, fully and without fear. The concept of psychological safety is essential in supporting the feeling of belonging. When people feel like they belong, they feel confident to bring new ideas. By empowering people to contribute to the best of their abilities, creativity and innovation will shine through.

Diverse teams are more likely to think differently to one another and to tackle challenges from a range of different angles and perspectives. Employees who work in a diverse team can expect to regularly anticipate alternative and unexpected viewpoints from their own, and to be challenged on their opinions. Being exposed to different ways of thinking broadens our traditional cognitive patterns to consider the perspectives of others.

At AstraZeneca, we believe our diversity is an important factor in our competitive advantage and breeds the creativity and innovation that sits at the heart of our company. It’s this innovation that allows us to push the boundaries of science to bring life-changing medicines to patients. We place huge importance on our employees feeling that they belong.

Building a psychologically safe and inclusive environment 

As leaders, it is our responsibility to create an environment where every team member is treated equitably. That doesn’t mean just treating everyone the same, it means removing barriers to ensure that every person is able to thrive and fully participate to the best of their abilities and to bring the full extent of their difference to work with them every day. If we’re actively being inclusive – valuing, seeking out and making the most of diversity of thought to create a culture that promotes equity – diversity will naturally follow.

Before we start recruiting for a role, we run a diagnostic with hiring managers to better understand the diversity that currently exists in their team and what kind of diversity would help to further strengthen it. This encourages managers to consider what skills and differences are missing from their team and how we can proactively find candidates with those missing skills, moving us away from diversity for the sake of diversity and ensuring we strengthen the team with every hire by bringing the right people into the right roles for the right reasons.

Celebrate individual differences 

It goes without saying, but it’s important to remember that employee diversity comes in many different forms. There are the inherent dimensions of diversity – such as age, gender, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation – which many of us are programmed to recognise. But it’s worth considering acquired forms of diversity when building teams too – for example, an employee’s academic or industry background, career path, work experience or their socio-economic status.

Take the time to also consider non-visible diversity dimensions. A great example of this is neurodiversity. People often describe neurodiversity as a spectrum, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily linear. Ultimately, we are all neurodiverse – we all think and act in a slightly different way to our colleagues. But people who identify as neurodivergent can often turn their differences into superpowers for the good of the team. They might be hyper-focused in terms of their attention; they might be able to spot patterns to see the bigger picture. Ensuring that teams have a mixture of all these skills makes us more creative, more innovative, and ultimately enables us to make a bigger difference through the work we do.

Encourage every member of your team to think about the individual difference that they bring and how they can make the most of it. 

Create accountability for thinking inclusively

Once you have built diverse teams, it becomes the responsibility of every leader and employee to help create healthy working relationships and practices that enable their colleagues to deliver their best work and come together as a high-performing team.

Encourage employees to look at every work situation through a lens of inclusion and diversity. This could be something as simple as re-considering the wording of an email to a colleague, putting in an important meeting at a time that you know is suitable for all time zones, or encouraging input from other team members you might not usually consult to get more diverse perspectives.

We all have a role to play in building truly inclusive and diverse teams. When every employee feels that they belong, they can contribute unreservedly and to the best of their ability. Valuing people because of their differences allows us to create an environment where everyone can perform at their best and connect with our purpose, to deliver life-changing medicines to patients.

Rebekah Martin is SVP, reward and inclusion at AstraZeneca