A while back, I came across a podcast The Secret Lives of Black Women in an episode titled "Black Faces in White Spaces." I nodded with familiarity as I listened to tales of the struggles of being the only black woman, or one of a very few in the office. As the speakers shared their stories, one of the things that stood out to me most vividly was the feeling that at their former workplaces, the hosts and their guest didn't feel like they belonged.

That's a shame because business is about belonging. And if the people on your team don't feel like they belong, it will be difficult for them to bring their best selves to work to enable them to make your customers feel like they belong.

Diverse teams have been proven to perform better. But just because you're hiring a diverse team, doesn't mean you will automatically harness the power that their various backgrounds, thoughts, experiences, and ways of thinking bring.

You've got to create a culture that not only enables everyone to feel like they belong, but gives them a space to feel like they can be their true selves without having to wear a mask that negatively impacts the way they work. 

How to create a company culture that enables diverse teams to thrive.

With my team here in Argentina, I make intentional effort to ensure we spend time together doing activities that aren't work-related, as a means to help us bond and get to know each other as individuals. 

Much of our bonding has happened over food, as we've gone out for nachos, ice cream, and steak. But we've also gone bowling and had some fun doing karaoke. And last year when I got married, it was a joy to share the moment with my team as we danced and celebrated together during the reception.

A big tendency for people is to try and put up a veil between work life and personal life. They work hard to be politically correct at all times and keep the kinds of conversations you have that aren't work-related to be limited to safe topics like what they did over the weekend, upcoming vacation plans, or talking about sports or TV shows.

But the reality is, if you want to create an environment where people feel at home, you have to create a culture where they feel welcome. Your team should feel supported. Like they can exhale and not feel like they have to hide or hold back pieces of themselves whenever they walk in the door each day.

At the beginning of my career, I was advised to limit how much I talked about my personal life or how much I engaged with others beyond work matters. Eventually, I realized how bad that advice that was, because it prevented people from getting to know the "real me," making it difficult to form real relationships, rather than just superficial ones.

Relationships with colleagues can be valuable and rewarding. You spend a lot of time at work, and with the people you work with. Relationships in many instances are the only way to get business done.

Of course, everyone doesn't need to be your best friend or need to know all the details of what's going on in your personal life. But it is nice to know that you work in a happy place that is a space where you look forward to going every day, not only because of the challenging and rewarding work that you do, but because of the people you get to do it with.

This type of culture can be cultivated no matter how diverse your team is. In fact, the more diverse your team is, the harder you should work to create an environment where everyone feels like they belong.

Start by getting to know your team as individuals. Learn about their differences (everyone has them), what fuels their world view, and how that impacts the way they work. Invite everyone to share their thoughts and ideas on how to make the work you do collectively better. Resist the urge to avoid conversations that will enhance you and your team's cultural intelligence.

The idea isn't for people to check their differences at the door. 

It's for them to show up fully, authentically, knowing that no matter how many faces look like them when they show up, that they are seen, valued, and welcome. That the people that they will work with each day are "their people" because they get each other. Because you've developed the kind of bonds that connect you to each other beyond just the fact that you work at the same place.

Published on: Jan 16, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.