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The Importance of Creating an Equitable Team Culture

The Importance of Creating an Equitable Team Culture

Impact Opportunity had the chance to speak with the founders of The Equity Practice about their work and how managers play a critical role in determining work culture and mitigating bias in the workplace.


What is The Equity Practice?

Alli Myatt, Principal and Co-founder, The Equity Practice

Alli Myatt

The Equity Practice focuses on helping people move beyond conversations about race to take actions for racial equity. We do that to help people understand the patterns that are showing up in their practices, behaviors, and mindsets. Through consulting and training, we deconstruct those patterns and identify ways to change their procedures so that they can have a more inclusive, equitable, diverse, belonging workplace; some might even say more liberation at work. 

Courtney Tungate, Principal and Co-founder, The Equity Practice

Courtney Tungate

Much of the work we're doing now is based on what we experienced both as individual contributors, managers, and people on the human capital talent side of the work and recognized how critical a human-centered equitable approach is. I think what sets us apart from others in the space is this focus on practices. We hope to work with organizations and help them make very meaningful changes within the organization. 

Why is it essential to have a great team culture and collaborative work environment? 

Alli: If you have a great team culture and a collaborative work environment, you get better results at the end of the day. We focus on these practices to get better results and make sure as we get to the better results, it's done in a way that is equitable, inclusive, and just. 

"The advice I would give to organizations doing work around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is that it is all about relationships. We have inequity because we lost our sense of shared humanity along the way for a lot of reasons. If you want to get to equity and inclusion, you have to build your capacity to see someone else's humanity and be willing to change how you've done things in the past so that you can create an environment that works for everyone on your team."

Alli Myatt
Principal & Co-Founder
The Equity Practice

Our Manager Series was born from our experience leading talent development at an education nonprofit, where a lot of our work focused on manager development. Managers would say, "I know that I'm doing the oppressive thing, but I don't know how to change." So, we created the Manager Series specifically to help managers learn how to change their practices. We have a framework called See-it, Deconstruct-it, Co-create it. In the session, we help people see the patterns of oppression showing up in their management practices and then deconstruct them. We help them answer questions like: How are each of the choices that you're making in your management creating inequity? How do you assign work to different people, how do you assess people's performance, how do you set goals, or how do you set team norms? We help people think about new ways of being more equitable and inclusive for their team.

Courtney: One of the things within the Manager Series that we do that is reflective of what we think is critical in teams is we have people work together and do a lot of relationship-building within the course. That's to mimic the importance of the relationship-building that should be happening in teams working together in their organizations. We know that one of the things that is critical for people's experience, particularly when you talk about belonging and engagement, is the people they're working with—that's the key difference-maker. 

What makes a great team or culture?

Alli: It depends. I know people hate getting that answer. That's because when we talk about Co-Create it, that's what it's all about. It's the idea that, instead of people who have power deciding what our culture and experience will be when we're working together, that instead, as a team, we're agreeing that we're in a community together and have a relationship together. Therefore, we're going to co-create what a great culture is. One important thing, for me personally, is a sense of joy, freedom, being trusted to do the work, and being able to do it in my own way. But that might not be true for someone else. This idea of “Co-Create it” is about how you create a culture that genuinely works for all the people, versus just the people in power. What has often happened is we've created cultures that support a homogenous team—that's how you end up with exclusionary environments... As you diversify, what works for the original homogenous group - or dominant culture -  doesn't work for everyone.

How do team cultures roll up into an organization's culture? Can they be different?

Alli: There's this great book called Nine Lies About Work (commission earned). And one of the lies that they talk about is the idea that there is a core culture distinct from team cultures or that the same culture exists on all teams. If you have a hundred teams in your organization, you're going to have a hundred different experiences. It's important to acknowledge that a lot of what you experienced about an organization's culture is about the people that you work with all the time. What you want to do is create those cultures collectively. There's a culture that exists when we're in your small team, and then there are also agreements that you make for the larger team.

That's harder to do when there are 2,000 people, but for smaller organizations, those less than a hundred people, it's easier to use this idea of co-creation. When the organization is bigger, yes, you will have lots of little pockets of culture because there are many more different types of teams and functions. 

An organization leader I worked with used to say something like; you have to manage your culture, if you don't manage your culture, you'll have a culture it just might not be the one you want. Being intentional about and taking the time to create these agreements on how we want to work together and what we want to be true about this relationship is important to managing culture. So much about equity, inclusion, and belonging is about relationships and people. In our society, we often don't want to take the time to do relationship work because we think it's wasting time. But what I have found is spending time, in the beginning, to articulate how we want to work together makes the team stronger, so we can go faster in the long run.

What are some guiding principles for kicking off a great team culture?  

Alli: I like to start with people's vision. Having a conversation about our shared values and then making sure people know what the work is. That is something people skip all the time. They don't take the time to review the work to be done and go through the nuts and bolts of the work. That should include being clear on how we're going to get the job done together and how we're going to measure it along the way.

Courtney: I would add the idea of growing organizations, which is happening a lot in the United States and across the world—thinking about what this means when adding new people into a team. We often forget, and I am guilty of this, how critical it is to recheck every time you add somebody to your team to renegotiate the co-created culture and the work. It's imperative to revisit as a team. What is our shared vision? How are we relationship-building? Whose work is coming off, what new work is coming on, and who's doing what? Frequently we see that as an individual exchange with an employee and a manager. But, there's a huge benefit to making a team dynamic and making sure that kickoff is continuously happening. I've never had somebody come into a small team and not have a culture shift.

Alli: If it feels overwhelming to reset every time you add a person, you can do it in waves, perhaps quarterly, if you are doing a significant amount of hiring. It is worth doing; it saves so much time in the long run. Every time that I've skipped this process, that's when you end up having hard conversations, ultimately have to reset, which then slows you down in the long run. 

The Equity Practice Recommended Reads

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What role might managers play in creating a collaborative team environment and sustaining it? 

Courtney: One of the things that we talk about a lot and is essential is shifting power. Sometimes that means that as the manager, you're shifting decisions or work to your team that might feel contrary to what we’ve learned about management. I certainly experienced this. I thought I'm the team leader. I'm supposed to know how to do everything, leading the team, setting the culture, and having the vision. And often, your team has solid and unique ideas about what they want to be true and how they want to work together. We talk a lot about creating space for people to come together and have those conversations, and managers not always having to be the ones to come up with the solution or have the answer. That disruption of power can be critical and powerful in helping a team grow, be committed, successful, feel engaged, and empowered to make decisions. 

Alli: Gretchen Rubin, who does a lot of work around creating habits (commission earned), talks about whatever you monitor is what you develop. And so, the thing that sustains it is monitoring it. If this is important to you, have a goal around it. Get regular data and input from your team about this and hold yourself accountable to that goal. 

Tema Okun has a great piece that she just updated about white supremacy, what she calls white supremacy culture at work. It talks about norms that are grounded in what is often white dominant culture in organizations. One of them is the idea that there is one right way to do things. To disrupt that practice of having one right way, whether it's how you do a work plan, how your PowerPoint slides might look correct. If you have this very rigid approach, it can be very exclusionary, and who is excluded can often fall along the lines of race. That's why this matters. When you have a very rigid way of doing things, then who gets to be successful at it is often grounded in whiteness. Who's not being retained are people who are most different from whiteness; we believe that's problematic.

Being open to multiple ways of doing things can feel challenging but is very important for belonging. People can feel challenged by that idea, because they fear it might mean, if this person figures out a different way to do it, then I'm not as good or smart as I thought I was. 

What are the inequities that you see show up in management practices?  

Alli: We often talk about the life cycle of an employee and what you experience from the moment you are recruited through how you are off-boarded. There are oppressive practices at every single stage. Some biases play out, not just in recruiting but also in how we think about who's a good performer and who's not. An example I often give is a study where researchers mocked up a cover letter and planted eight mistakes. They made it look like one version came from a white man. A second version looked like it was from a black man. When cover letter reviewers looked at the white man's cover letter, they would find about 40% of the mistakes and say things like, "he's a great candidate, he has a lot of potential, I'd love for him to work here." When they looked at the black man's cover letter, they found 80% of the mistakes. So, the same number of errors and same performance, but the way they assessed it was different. They found twice as many of the mistakes. With the black man's cover letter, they would find an error, go back to the top, and then slow down their review, looking for more. They didn't do that with the white man's cover letter. That's called hyper-surveillance, and that's an example of a phenomenon that shows up throughout the employee life cycle. 

What all of us as individual managers have to do is understand our own biases in mindsets and practices and be willing to deconstruct them, and see this choice that we're making here is leading to this inequitable outcome over there. 

Courtney: We see some patterns come out again and again, particularly across lines of race. Every organization is different, but there are some predictable things, and it often manifests itself in organizational practices. We've seen this play out when managers are responsible for pay negotiation; then, you can have salary inequity. Depending on the organizational culture, you'll often see women, particularly women of color and Black women, don't get constructive feedback. A lot of it does tie back to these biases that were playing out some of how we've internalized white supremacy culture in our own way. And then the ways that we're oppressing others through that. 

Alli: The ways that we see the in-group or the out-group. So much of people's success is about informal information about how work gets done in a particular workplace. We know this happens in recruitment as well. If you know somebody who works at an organization, they probably look at your resume and cover letter. They might coach you to help you navigate the process. So often, when organizations are diversifying, they don't realize that this informal thing that is happening for their white candidates is not happening for their candidates of color. Then when you see different outcomes, quelle surprise, right?

The same thing is true at work. Some people are getting these insider tips, and some people are not. A lot of research was done showing you're less likely to have stereotypes against another person, and that person's group, if you can build more authentic relationships across racial lines. Then you see that individual as part of your in-group. When someone's part of your in-group, you give them that insider information. These racial norms that have existed for 400 something years in our society are getting replicated at work. We have to do a lot of work to undo our own biases and build better relationships across lines of race.

How can The Equity Practice help people who are ready to take action and ensure they have a great culture?

Alli: We have our Manager Series; our next one starts September 9th, 2021. We also have a program called the Identity Lab which is for individuals committed to equity and inclusion, have a goal, but keep doing things that are counter to your goal. The Identity Lab is a great experience that helps you figure out what those mindsets are, those hooks, that are holding you back. Then we help participants create a plan to unhook themselves. On our consulting side, we love to talk to organizations, particularly if they are working on recruitment policies, handbooks, thinking about performance reviews, or any other processes. We can help deconstruct the current process and come up with ideas to do something different. 

Any parting advice? 

Alli: The advice I would give to organizations doing work around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is that it is all about relationships. We have inequity because we lost our sense of shared humanity along the way for a lot of reasons. If you want to get to equity and inclusion, you have to build your capacity to see someone else's humanity and be willing to change how you've done things in the past so that you can create an environment that works for everyone on your team. To do that, you have to focus on relationships, which can sometimes feel like you're wasting time or it is too touchy-feely, but it strengthens your team. It allows you to do better work together. And it honestly just feels better to be part of a team where you have strong relationships, people see your humanity, are invested in you as a human, and in your collective liberation together. This idea of shifting from "how do I solve this thing? to "how do I share space with people at work?" is the thing that might sound weird to people, but that's it. It's about relationships and having a broader in-group than you might have right now.

Courtney: When I think about traditional practices at work, they're often not great. They're frequently embedded in white supremacy culture, in control, in accountability, in compliance. So much of the ways that we learn about work are very compliance-driven and not relationship-oriented. We feel passionate about taking a human-centered approach to work and ensuring that everything we do and every way that work touches people, managers understand what that experience is creating. We think about that through an equity lens. Those two things together, the human and the equity lens, are where our hearts are in this work in terms of making sure that all employees can thrive, belong, and experience work differently than a lot of people experience work currently. We believe people can have an amazing work experience, and we want to help organizations create that for their people.