Notes on Fostering Equitable and Inclusive Behavior

Β· 3120 words Β· 15 minute read

At the core of whatever we want to call this period of distributed work – hybrid-remote, distributed, new normal, post-lockdown – is a deep and essential need for more equitable and inclusive behavior in how we work.

There are a lot of practices, tactics, perspectives, and playbooks on “how to go remote” or how to work in a hybrid environment, and there are examples of companies that run a relatively narrow playbook or embrace a few particular practices: Shifting to a written culture, promoting asynchronous work, assorted social interaction techniques to capture what is lost when the office falls away as the center of work life, decision-making techniques, etc. There is a definite case to be made that some of these techniques will work better or worse or take more or less change to succeed. But at the core of the issue in front of us is how we are going to bring everyone along in a distributed, hybrid environment in a way that honors the equity and inclusion we prize.

So let’s start by admitting that behaving inclusively can be hard.

If you’re a manager, you’re probably thinking about your “budget” with your team: How much can you spend on introducing and supporting change?

If you’re a senior or more tenured person on the team, you’re used to things going a certain way, and don’t always catch it when something your team does isn’t working for someone else.

If you’re brand new, it is daunting and hard to speak up when you feel left out, or think something needs to change.

If you’re not part of the dominant group on a team – and enumerating the many ways people will feel that way about themselves is out of scope for this particular essay – you may feel like your perspective will simply be too alien to your teammates to share, or too frustrated from past attempts to share it to want to try again.

Even if everything aligns, and everyone agrees a change needs to be made, it requires intentionality to stick: There are habits to break, patterns to unlearn, and new behaviors to adopt.

Sometimes the things you have to do to be more inclusive – taking turns taking notes, or facilitating the meeting, or making sure everyone has had a chance to speak, or helping more talkative teammates tone it down while trying to draw out the more retiring ones or leave space for “the people on the screen” – aren’t that easy to do: They feel awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes they even put people in conflict because it is one thing to intellectually embrace the need for change, but quite another to actually make the change.

But these changes will not just happen. Your good intentions or desire to do better don’t really matter. What matters is what you actually do.

Where are the leaders? πŸ”—

What’s required in all this is leadership.

It is by now a business article clichΓ© to note that managers are not necessarily leaders, and leaders are not necessarily managers. I am going to return to this in a second because it is true, important, and only so useful an observation to make.

Anyhow: What’s required in all this is leadership.

Leadership, when we are talking about the problem of fostering inclusive behavior, can come from a lot of different places. It can be as simple as someone looking around, noticing that things aren’t quite right – not everyone gets a turn to speak, or that not all ideas are heard, or that someone speaks much more than everyone else – and says something about it. Leadership is when someone simply volunteers to pick up the marker and turns the camera to make sure “the people on the screen” can see the whiteboard during a brainstorming session. Leadership is pointing out that some studies indicate “brainstorming sessions” don’t actually work the way we think they do and proposing an alternative that actually works better when you can’t all be in the same room. Leadership is when someone simply starts taking notes because nobody else is.

The most inclusively minded person I ever had on a team was not a manager. When we established a team norm that everyone, including the director, was to take a turn taking notes, he noted the times I missed meetings and made sure I took my turn when I did manage to make one. He was the one who would look around the table and ask someone who had been sitting quietly what they made of the topic. He was the one who warned me, in private after a meeting, that my profane tirade about a self-evidently backward department elsewhere in the building might have undermined peoples’ sense of safety.

Some people like to call this “servant leadership,” and that’s fine. Reasonable arguments have been made that “servant leadership” is more a way to keep being the boss while presenting as self-effacing and humble, and I take their point. My favorite leader in the military always insisted on eating last when our unit was out in the field because it was the right thing to do – “mission first, people always” – but he did not need us to believe he was anything other than in charge.

Whatever kind of leadership you want to call it, if you have someone on the team regardless of their title or level who is simply getting out and pushing on inclusivity, even if it feels awkward or weird or makes people a little uncomfortable, that’s the leader.

Given that model of leadership – that it’s the person who simply does the needful when nobody else is – there’s sort of a resourcing problem: Leaders like that can be thin on the ground.

There are a lot of reasons for that scarcity.

Sometimes teams are too comfortable with old patterns. Sometimes the manager or leadership or loudest voices are resistant to change and try to shut it down. Sometimes everyone is just suffering in silence, or stuck in a feedback loop of escalating poor behavior because everyone is struggling to be heard over everyone else’s attempts to be heard. Sometimes teams are so homogenous that they simply cannot understand that not everyone thinks like them, or – as I once saw – believes it best to simply put the “different people” together so they’ll “be more comfortable.” The “they” is ambiguous there. The “different people” were definitely not more comfortable, so I think it was the team that put them on the island that was seeking comfort.

Another set of problems comes with simply being people in business, which often comes with a huge amount of overthought baggage around roles and responsibilities: Managers and assorted program or project managers or scrum masters aren’t sure who’s really running the meeting, or have conflicting mental maps of who delegated what authority to whom in what team context. If the process czars have been loose in the org, there may be a paralyzing amount of ritual or reporting that tolerates no deviation, no room to breathe, no room to challenge. Team retrospectives may be heavily focused on little process fixes, because those things are easier to talk about than whether the team is fundamentally fair and inclusive in its behavior.

All those things – sour team dynamics and weird corporate hangups about who’s in charge – impede the development of leadership or the growth of leaders because they are all kinds of headwind, or extra gravity to transcend.

Bootstrapping leadership πŸ”—

This is where I am going to return to the topic of management vs. leadership, because I’ve got a dim view of how much leadership there is on the planet at any given time. It’s a rare quality, made all the more rare by the extraordinary period we are living through. Isolation, disconnection, worry, sickness, and trauma are all profoundly flattening, humbling things.

Nothing about being a manager, or a leader, makes you any less human or susceptible to those things. In some ways, they might even go double because leaders are often the ones picking others up and carrying them when they just can’t go on. That isn’t without cost.

So if nobody is stepping up and exhibiting natural, self-motivated leadership – if nobody is doing the needful and leading others toward inclusive practices – something has to happen to begin that cycle. In our case, I’d argue that’s managers.


Because they have power. Sometimes it is constrained. For instance, managers will often defer to scrum masters or program managers on issues of team practices, or allow the the lead engineer on a small team to drive a lot of the team’s workflows and prioritization. But in our context, and in general, a manager who is not doing something in violation of policy or in a way that is shockingly misaligned with our values has plenty of power and can expect to be heard if there is a problem or even if they just think we need a change.

Further, managers have the most access to real power in the company, meaning the most senior leaders and the people running the administrative apparatus. They are first in line for company news, the first who are engaged with and enlisted to help during a major change, and they have the most privilege. They are, with some checks and balances in place, the arbiters of who gets to progress and who does not. Their word is taken when the question of someone’s promotability is raised.

Despite having this power, there are some missing ingredients:

  • Empowerment to drive equitable and inclusive behavior
  • Enablement
  • Accountability to deliver what they’ve been empowered to drive

In turn:

Empowerment πŸ”—

Some people are great at simply driving change. They don’t spend a lot of time asking around or forming commitees or what have you. They just see what they believe needs to be done and they do it. There’s a tempation to ascribe this to corporate sorting hat “personality type” stuff, but it’s also a function of leadership shifts, changes in company culture, and rising or falling personal stock.

Other people are more retiring, or they’ve been through enough changes (or failed attempts at change) that they’re not so sure this is all going to work. They need some sense that if they implement a change or try something new, they will be supported. It is hard for some people to imagine, but sometimes being the manager is sort of disempowering: Someone on your team has more social juice than you, or enjoys a frequent 1:1 with your boss, or has the team’s ear and sets a tone you find hard to counter.

To drive changes in behavior, managers need to believe that if they push their teams to make important changes, and that if they are working from a menu of best practices, they’ll have support.

How do you give them that?

  • You explain the changes you want to see or tell them the things you want them to care about.
  • You tell the organization the same thing and set expectations that managers have been told this stuff is important.
  • You model the behavior yourself. If a member of the SLT, a VP, or a director can’t be bothered to do this stuff, why would a line manager expect to be supported?
  • You insist on measurement to make the point that this matters to you. Set goals, survey sentiment, measure change.

Enablement πŸ”—

People don’t always know how to do this stuff.

More homogenous teams tend to struggle because they have a level of personal comfort that has undermined their curiosity. They feel awkward or afraid that attempts to understand someone they’ve inadvertently othered will provoke conflict, or that they’ll do it wrong and get in trouble.

Anyone I can imagine sharing this with directly will probably have some fluency in the language of microaggression, unconscious bias, and perhaps assorted theories of oppression. Not everyone does. The bar is higher than it used to be, and while that is good – we will collectively stretch to a better and better place – it’s a standard of conduct some people are just now getting around to understanding.

Enablement is about helping people foster inclusive practices by giving them tools – guides, concrete steps to take, ways to measure their success or indicate that they need to iterate once more.

It has been pointed out that not every team is the same. Not every region works the same way. That the challenges for one group may be quite different from another. We have wisely recognized that one size doesn’t fit all, and that it would be a mistake that would keep us from succeeding if we simply dictated a uniform set of behaviors and expected everyone to comply.

  • Some teams, for instance, are great at taking turns talking; they just get hung up recognizing every source of ideas.
  • Some teams have a round-robin note-taking practice, but they quietly other the women on the team by always pairing them together.
  • Some teams are great at mentorship, but the people on the team who call in never get a word in over the people sitting in the conference room.

When teams have a practice that is working, and if that practice is meeting our goals because the team is 100 percent self-reporting feelings of inclusion and equity, they shouldn’t have to stop because that particular practice isn’t in the playbook.

But they’re all going to have blind spots, so they will need tools to diagnose the things we believe are important – what the characteristics are of an inclusive, safe, equitable team – and a set of tools they can use to up their practice until they are hitting all the marks.

Accountability πŸ”—

Finally, managers simply must be held accountable:

  • Do they have personal and team goals that reflect the right focus areas?
  • Do the practices they’ve identified to improve their team even happen?
  • Do they measure?
  • Is doing this stuff the difference between “Improving” and “Achieving” on their performance review?
  • Do they understand that downtalking “the how” because “they prize delivering over being nice” is not a good look for them?
  • Do they understand that “generally high scores” in assorted pulse and engagement surveys don’t mean they’re done and that all of the above still applies to them?

This is the hardest part for any working group in a corporate environment, because lecturing about empowerment and ideating about enablement are not about doing, they’re about talking and thinking. To compel people to do, you have a few sets of conditions that might work:

  1. A culture of grassroots, bottom up accountability: Teams holding themselves, their leaders, and their managers to a standard, and undertaking the work of changing their behavior and measuring their improvement.
  2. Direction from the top: Senior leadership agreeing and committing to the importance of inclusive behavior as a matter of the health of the company, and making sure that peoples’ incentives so align.

I believe that because of Puppet’s size, the many kinds of management culture you can see throughout the company, the uniquely challenging nature of the times, and a few anecdotes from people who have tried to turn the hybrid-remote crank over the years that while we have people in corners of the company who are setting the right example and doing the right thing, it’s not enough to get us over the top and create a culture of sustained and continuously improving inclusive, equitable behavior.

Initial thoughts on how, a.k.a. tl;dr πŸ”—

Establish managers as the first line of change πŸ”—

We must focus on managers as the people who will drive the changes we need teams to make. They have to be convinced of the need for change, trained in how to deliver it, and established as the ongoing stewards of the improvements we make. They’re the first step in all things.

Define equity and inclusion πŸ”—

What does an equitable and inclusive team look like? How does it behave? What kinds of practices does it embrace, and which does it eschew? How do you measure?

Develop the toolkit πŸ”—

There’s plenty of literature and prior art on hybrid-remote work practices. Any curated list must center their value in fostering inclusivity and equity. There are, for instance, lots of voices in favor of shifting to a written culture – I’m one of them, which makes sense for someone who fed himself with his writing for a decade – but viewed through an equity lens, that’s not always going to work well in teams with power dynamic challenges or different modes of communication.

That doesn’t mean tossing things out because they won’t always work or because they have tradeoffs, but it does mean that any toolkit should note the tradeoffs inherent in each of its constituent parts, and suggest to managers ways to assess their teams.

Set the expectation πŸ”—

We agree there should be no expectation that a given team will use a particular set of practices, but we must expect that every team will center equity and inclusion in its practices, and that there are some constants in what it means to center anything:

  • That you’re going to do things that serve equity and inclusion.
  • That you’re going to introspect your team periodically using a blend of quantitative measurement and rigorous qualitative assessment.
  • You’re going to use that introspection to improve your practices.

Align incentives πŸ”—

Developing, supporting, and iterating on inclusive and equitable practices must be core to every manager’s definition of success.

  • They must recognize and support people on their teams who model the behavior, and show that they’ve done so.
  • They must be evaluated and rewarded (or not) based on their support and promulgation of these practices, showing their work as part of regular performance reviews.

Measure πŸ”—

Some combination of quantitative and qualitative measurement must be a requirement. The question should not be “percentage completed of a checklist of practices,” because things will descend into parody and “pencil-whipping.” Instead, we should mandate experiments and documentation of the outcomes or team reactions.

We should also develop useful, universal survey questions that help us understand how equitably and fairly people believe they are being treated, specifically in team contexts. One challenge we’ve had in survey language in the past has been malleable or blurry distinctions between leaders, organizational units, “teams,” etc.

Instead, we must be very concrete: Define the team, define “my manager,” define “leaders,” and make sure we are focused on the lower levels of the organization, where people form their impressions of everyday work, and where managers enjoy a great deal of latitude (and hence have the most power to effect change that impacts peoples’ impressions of everyday work.)