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The sense of inclusion that a workplace can foster has a positive effect on the individuals who work there and the organization as a whole.

Still, achieving inclusion can be challenging. One path forward is by finding and encouraging greater connection among team members.

Inclusion can be seen as a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging. It’s assessed as the extent to which employees are valued, respected, accepted, and encouraged to fully participate in the organization.

When people feel supported and included at work, they’re more likely to stay and to encourage friends to join the organization. Conversely, research from 2008 indicates that when only one group of individuals feels included, those who don’t are more likely to disengage, leave the organization, and discourage friends from joining it.

Inclusion has a powerful impact on both an organizational and individual level. Evidence indicates that teams with a strong sense of inclusion make better decisions, work faster, and earn more. A Deloitte study found that inclusive organizations are:

  • twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets
  • three times as likely to be high performing
  • six times more likely to be innovative and agile
  • eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes

A sense of inclusion or lack thereof also has an impact on individuals.

Research from 2008 shows that a feeling of exclusion can affect a person’s sense of well-being, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. Plus, studies from 2012, 2014, and 2015 indicate that feeling excluded may cause decreased motivation, impaired cognition, and even physical pain.

Thus, creating inclusion in our organizations is essential to the health and well-being of the organization itself and of the individuals within it.

Unfortunately, true inclusion is challenging to reach. In a McKinsey & Co. study of large employers in financial services, technology, and healthcare, just 29% of employees had positive things to say about their organization’s level of inclusion. The lowest scores related to fairness and equality of opportunity, where an average of 74% of respondents said that their organizations were doing poorly on that measure.

Why is inclusion so difficult to achieve? I believe this is partly due to an essential dichotomy. To fit into a group, we must assimilate. To feel accepted, we must be our authentic, unique selves.

Showing up authentically as a minority within a group can be difficult and sometimes even risky or dangerous.

People are more likely to support, protect, and empathize with those they believe to be similar to them. In one study, white and Asian students were shown photos of individuals who did or did not match their ethnicity, in different contexts.

The study found that participants felt greater empathy for those in negative situations who were of their own ethnic group. Similar distinctions were not present for those in happier situations, demonstrating — somewhat disturbingly — that we seem to be wired to be less likely to feel bad for people in negative situations if they’re of a different race than ourselves.

Even if you aren’t familiar with this research, it’s probably intuitive. And the experiences of marginalization, discrimination, and microaggression that members of minority groups endure make this quite plain. Thus, those in minority groups feel a pressure to deemphasize their culture and backgrounds to assimilate into the larger group culture, resulting, for instance, in the pressure on LGBTQIA+ folks to be closeted, on People of Color to downplay their heritage and culture, and on those with disabilities to hide their accommodations.

This may create a sense of team unity, but it’s a false one, as the statistics on inclusion attest. Those who are hiding their authentic selves pay a cost for it, as do the organizations that employ them.

I believe that there is one thing that may help: building connection.

Surprisingly, studies have shown that creating small connections between team members can help overcome initial biases. This works even with random, made-up affiliations, like designating a particular group as the “Lions” or the “Tigers”, or telling study participants that they are uniquely connected by their tendency to overestimate or underestimate the number of dots on a screen.

Therefore, to increase a sense of inclusion, I believe it can be helpful to identify small connections between you and the others at your organization.

On the Venn diagram of your interests and theirs, what’s the overlap? Maybe you both love the Olympics, or craft beer, or British mysteries.

To find these little connections, it’s important to be observant.

Maybe you notice that a woman from Finance has a Red Sox flag up in her office. If you’re a baseball fan, too, why not ask her whether she’s looking forward to opening day or who her favorite player is? That guy at the security desk is doing the Friday crossword — looks like he’s almost done. Why not compliment him on his achievement? You could even add, “I never get that far on Fridays.”

This works for remote teams, as well. Hear a dog bark on that call? Maybe ask what kind it is. If someone’s Zoom background is a beautiful mountain image, consider asking about it. Maybe you’ll discover a shared love of hiking or photography.

By noticing these little things you can start building simple, easy connections.

We’re crossword puzzle people or baseball fans. We’re dog lovers, hikers, or hobby photographers.

These kinds of arbitrary groups may seem inadequate to overcome identity differences like race, gender, and age, but research shows that they’re not.

We can draw a line around any group of people and tell them that they’re the same, and they’ll behave as if they are; they’ll privilege the experience of other group members and feel more empathetic toward them.

Thus, particularly in situations where you are of a more privileged societal group (by virtue of your race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or physical ability), consider taking the first step toward building small connections.

In terms of how to find these connections, there are a few topics that are usually an easy way to get the conversation rolling:

  • pets
  • weather
  • traffic
  • any kind of media, like movies, books, or music
  • something in the environment, like a nice plant or new construction

We generally want to avoid commenting on people’s appearance, but noticing something they’re wearing, like a pin or a tie from a particular place or a team, can be good.

If a person looks like they’re struggling or overwhelmed, for instance wrangling a load of boxes, that’s obviously not a great time to engage, except maybe to say, “Can I help you in any way?”

Plus, it’s good to keep in mind that some individuals may not be interested in connecting. If your initial queries are met with monosyllabic responses, take the hint and leave them be.

Otherwise, though, I’d encourage you to try over the next few days to start conversations with those you come across.

I especially like trying to find a connection with someone who seems as different from me as it’s possible to be — in the course of a short conversation, can I find something that we have in common?

There are a few conversation openers that I like to ask when there’s a lull, especially in a group. One is for people’s favorite book. I usually start off saying that I’m looking for something to read, and people generally are thrilled to talk about the books they love. Music, movies, TV shows, and podcasts would also work.

Another I like is, “What was your first job?” Or sometimes, “What was your worst job?” It usually leads to an interesting conversation and you learn a lot about people. You hear a little about the places people have lived, and about the things that they like and don’t like in a work setting.

One of my favorite conversations on this topic was when I learned that the other person and I had worked in the same mall, during the same years, in stores one floor on top of the other. I feel permanently bonded to her.

One final point on this is to think about the benefits of these small connections when creating team-building activities.

If you’re the lead of a team or are organizing a training or other group activity, there is value in putting together some kind of icebreaker that helps people make connections.

I’ve had luck with asking people their favorite foods from the area where they grew up or creating a trivia contest where the attendees tried to find other people from the group who fit certain criteria, like that they’re a twin or a vegetarian or they play the piano.

One that I’ve seen work online is to ask people to identify something in the room they’re in that makes them happy or an object of a specific color, and then talk about what they chose. These kinds of activities encourage people to talk to one another and make it easier to find connections, which builds empathy and trust across the group.

A truly inclusive workplace is one in which each person can feel part of the group while still being recognized and appreciated for their uniqueness.

This is a long-term goal that will require deep work on a societal level to challenge systems of oppression and create structures that allow each person to thrive. It’s going to be a lengthy process. But we each have a role to play in helping those around us to feel a sense of inclusion and worth.

To help build that, try finding small connections with others in your organization. When we do, we show people that we see and value them, and also build allegiances that can overcome differences.

Katharine Manning is the president of Blackbird, which provides training and consultation on responding to trauma and victimization at work, and the author of “The Empathetic Workplace: Five Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job.” She has been an advocate, counselor, and legal advisor for victims for more than 25 years, including 15 years at the Justice Department where she advised on cases like Madoff, Charlottesville, and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Headshot of Katharine Manning