Guide #020: How to foster a more inclusive product team

Managers and team leaders hold a lot of responsibility to create inclusive environments, but team members also have a role to play — choosing to further the effort through communication, actions and spirit.

Help new employees feel welcome

Reach out to new employees to chat informally. Ask them about the onboarding process or any experiences seen from the newbie’s perspective. Help demystify company rules and culture. For example, if a new employee asks: “If we have unlimited vacation days, does that mean I can take as much vacation as I want?” take the time to clarify the policy by sharing how many vacation days you’ve taken. Give concrete examples of how you’ve navigated certain situations, or point to people who can help explain how other things actually work.

Help new employees understand what really matters to the team

All teams have unspoken rules. Help new employees learn them as quickly as possible. For example, you might say: ”What really matters to your team is that everyone meets their deadlines.” Or “Always make sure to do an internal review with your design manager before sharing with external partners.”

Create informal opportunities to connect with your teammates

Suggest a 15-minute virtual coffee to catch up with team members (old and new). Seek to learn more about their interests, goals, and — if appropriate — their struggles and challenges. Build relationships with your teammates so that you can be a resource for discussing subjects that might be tough to bring up with a manager. Avoid gossiping or venting but don’t gloss over negative emotions or awkward situations. Be an active listener. Allow your teammates to express themselves, and once done, try to reframe the conversation with something like “That sounds tough, what do you think we could do to fix that?”

Seek feedback from your peers

Managers can be effective for a birds-eye view on your career. A peer, alongside you in the trenches, can provide feedback that your manager might miss. Peers can see cracks in your project plans, flaws in your communication style, and professional (or personal) challenges that you might be masking from your manager. Asking peers for feedback provides a low-stakes opportunity to work through challenges before they become large problems. Asking for feedback (and hearing it) is also a great way to model inclusive team behavior.

Ask for consent before sharing feedback

Building close bonds within your team might result in you hearing feedback that can and should be acted on, like learning that your onboarding process could use work, or if there’s room to improve the Design System. When someone shares an issue with you, ask if it’s okay to “bubble up” their feedback to your manager or someone in a position to fix the issue. This helps the individual sharing their issue know that you respect their privacy and that the organization as a whole is geared toward listening and responding to issues, rather than keeping them private.

Create a productive approach when sharing feedback with your manager

When bubbling up feedback to your manager, context is key. First, when you're sharing feedback, whether it’s related to a person, the organization or a process, reflect on why you’re bringing the issue up. Say something like, “I really want the Design System to work, and for adoption to be high, so we can waste less time on nitty-gritty details.” Additionally, remember that your manager might not be close to the issue so inform them of: 

  1. What the problem is (Ex: There is a bottleneck in Design System issues being resolved in a timely manner)
  2. Why it’s urgent (Ex: Designers are off-roading and not following the system) 
  3. Ask if you can provide help (Ex: I’ve thought about this, and I have a solution. Can I share it with you?)
  4. What do you expect to happen (Ex: I don’t need to execute this solution if you’d rather carry it forward or Can we meet again to see if we’ve improved in about a month?)

Offer to parse the signal from the noise

Even the absolute best managers can have blind spots. Whether you’re on a growing team focused on new hires or a relatively stable one facing new challenges, it’s always helpful to have an “ear-on-the ground.” This is good for you because it can be a leadership opportunity, and it’s good for your manager because you can help lighten your manager’s workload. Recognize when your proximity to the “factory floor” can offer insights into where issues are stemming from. Make sure you share with your manager that you have an interest in repairing a certain area or behavior before engaging in activity here. You’ll want to be partners in this effort, rather than a rogue. To effectively gain traction, avoid gossiping and venting with peers, but instead offer a root cause analysis as to why some actions or feelings are being masked from leadership.

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