Have you ever worked on a team where certain voices were always louder and heard more often than others? Or the same person got picked over and over again for the best projects?
These are just a couple of examples of non-inclusive team behaviors, and studies show that they are not as rare as you might think. In a survey of 1,300 workers by researchers at the University of Ottawa, more than 70 percent of respondents said they had experienced some form of exclusion in the past six months.
Often, this happens in the form of “micro-exclusions”—small, often unintentional acts of exclusion that add up to big, negative impacts. The good news is that the steps we can take to reverse this and start showing up for all of our colleagues are also small but very impactful.
Simple shifts in the way you communicate can help everyone feel more authentically valued. The result? A team that’s not only more inclusive but also more collaborative, trusting, open, innovative, and engaged—which is a better team for everyone, including you.
Get started with these five do’s and don’ts of inclusive communication:
1. Do: Ask Open-Ended Questions.
Why: When we don’t understand or agree with someone else’s point of view, we’re more likely to shut it down. However, acting inclusively means remaining open to all sorts of perspectives.
What to do: Ask open-ended questions, such as, “Can you say more about that?” This encourages the speaker to elaborate. Even if you disagree, recognize that their viewpoint is valid by saying something like, “I see where you’re coming from.” This contributes to a feeling of psychological safety, in which people feel safe to speak up and disagree, and it drives innovation and collaboration.
2. Don’t: Wait to Address Exclusive Behavior.
Why: If you witness exclusive behavior at work—someone being left off an email thread, for example, or more explicitly, being on the receiving end of a hurtful comment—it’s best to address it in the moment that it occurs. This prevents the issue from festering or escalating, and lets the excluded person know that they have an ally in the room.
What to do: Explain that such comments or actions aren’t acceptable or representative of your organization. Frame the conversation as an opportunity for the whole team to improve and grow. For example, if someone uses an exclusionary term, you can say something like, “Let’s try to be better about how we say this so that everyone feels included.”
3. Do: Call Out Contributions.
Why: Historically marginalized people tend to have a harder time getting their voices heard and contributions seen.
What to do: Consider whether you’re in a position to help amplify your team members’ voices. If yes, draw attention to your colleague’s contributions. For example, let’s say your coworker, Julien, contributed to a conversation, but his point was dismissed or even attributed to someone else. You can redirect the conversation by saying something like, “I want to return to Julien’s point,” or “I believe that’s what Julien was saying earlier,” to give credit where it’s due.
4. Don’t: Exclude by Omission.
Why: “I don’t think they’d want to join this team outing.” “Everyone celebrates this holiday, right?” These kinds of thoughts are typical in a world where we tend to self-anchor, or use our own lives as the lens through which we understand others. But they also can lead to exclusionary behavior, even if it’s unintentional or accidental.
What to do: When in doubt, check in with someone about their preferences. For example, you might think that a coworker felt excluded by a comment or by not being invited to an event. Follow up with them directly to ask how they felt so you can best support them.
5. Do: Listen Authentically.
Why: Listening—truly listening—can foster belonging and trust. The experience of being heard is critical to inclusivity, because it creates space for others to express themselves without judgment or interruption.
What to do: To become an authentic listener, minimize distractions, which includes putting away devices, and allot sufficient time for a conversation, say researcher Wendy Lynch, Ph.D, and psychologist Clydette de Groot, Ed.D. Resist the urge to comment or pull the conversation back to you. When the speaker does pause, take a moment to reflect on specific points they’ve made to confirm your understanding.