As much as we would all like to think assembling a diverse team will magically bring exponential results, it often doesn't work that way.

Having a team with differing backgrounds, experiences, and ways of thinking can help you produce superior results as you serve your customers better. But it takes work to create an environment where everyone thrives.

Differences exist. You can't pretend they don't, or that there isn't an adjustment period that needs to take place before the group can function cohesively. That often means addressing those differences head on, along with any challenges they may bring.

Why most organizations struggle to create an inclusive environment

They don't want to have tough conversations. They want everyone to get along and work well together.

As a result, the goal of having an "inclusive" culture is only possible as long as certain topics aren't addressed. Or as long as no one is forced to have uncomfortable conversations.

As such, when issues do arise, they aren't always handled appropriately. Friction arises, team members are alienated, and people don't perform at their best. No bueno.

Deborah Owens, is the founder of Corporate Alley Cat, an organization that helps and supports the needs of people of color in their corporate careers. After experiencing discrimination late in her career, she told me about the resistance she received when it came time to address the issue:

"I was very skilled at driving results, I knew how to meet and exceed objectives, I was a good problem-solver, I think I was innovative. But nobody had ever taught me how to handle discrimination in the workplace.

'Cause here's the deal, Sonia. I can say my boss has a drinking problem and nobody goes "whoa whoa." He might be doing some recreational drugs. I can say my boss has affairs at the workplace. I can say, he might beat his wife, or he's abusive to his wife. But the moment you say, "I think my boss is a racist," the world goes crazy.

'You can't say that! You can't just go around saying that!' And what happens is, you find yourself in a situation where there's no one to talk about it, because it's such a combustible topic. And we all act as if it doesn't exist."

Creating an inclusive environment means everyone on your team feels like they belong. It means cultivating a space where everyone is comfortable speaking up, without fear of retaliation, being ostracized, or ridiculed for saying something that may not be so popular.

And when someone does say something you may not be so happy about hearing, you've got a responsibility to listen. And where necessary, take appropriate action to resolve a problem.

Because if someone letting their voice be heard is met with resistance, the likelihood of them stepping out again is greatly diminished.

Good things don't happen when your team doesn't feel empowered to speak up. Turn to the Pepsi ad debacle for a very public and expensive example. Peruse the #blackwomenatwork hash tag for an abundance instances of unfortunate encounters going on behind the scenes.

In time, the rock-star team you assembled with so much promise, will begin to unravel. People will disengage, or leave.

It doesn't have to be that way.

A smart way to create an inclusive environment

A while back I read about a family that had given their children an X-plan. It's a way out for them to get out of social situations they don't feel comfortable in, while allowing them to not have to suffer consequences or answer a million questions about where they were or what was going on.

The idea worked well, because it created a safe space for kids to communicate with their parents, rather than feeling stuck in a less than optimal situation.

Safe spaces need to exist at your company.

Every person on your team needs to feel comfortable enough to talk about something they aren't comfortable with, or to raise the red flag on an idea they feel is going awry.

You need to create a safe space where people are free to talk about their differences. One that makes it easy for everyone to expand their own viewpoint and walk a mile in the shoes of those whose perspectives deviate from their own.

Then you'll create an empathetic organization. One that isn't afraid to tackle the difficult or uncomfortable, for the purpose of getting to the magic that happens on the other side once you do.

Then you'll have created a culture where everyone feels like they belong. One that's inclusive. One that people enjoy being in. One that outperforms others.

But you've go to plan in advance to create a culture that operates like this. And then you've got to do the work to implement and maintain it.

It will not happen on its own.

Published on: Apr 24, 2017