By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.

Successful leaders get the most from their team by creating an inclusive culture. Inclusion is a cultural norm on the most effective teams that is simple to understand and rarely achieved.  It comes down to the basic question “does everyone feel their contributions to the team are valued?” Does everyone have a role to play that helps the team win?

Great leaders understand winning is a team effort that depends on a culture of inclusion where everyone contributes, and everyone is valued for their unique contributions. One superstar alone cannot sustain winning for their team without the support and contributions of others. And so, while a leader needs to create the conditions for the best talent to rise, they also need to create conditions where lessor talent (newer to the team, early career, employees who are cross training, etc.) can contribute and can develop into the superstars of the future.

I coached a leader last year, (Tim as a pseudonym), who had four leaders reporting into him with varying skill levels, diverse work history, and a range of tenure in the organization. He was struggling to get the group to meet team goals and wanted to figure out how to get them over the hump. At the end of each quarter the person he saw as his top talent (we’ll call her Gina) was always burnt out trying to get to the finish line as he consistently pushed workload away from the other three and onto her. As a result, Gina would always start the next quarter a little slower and more burnt out. The other team members’ resentment festered at first, then began to grow into apathy as learned helplessness set in. What was the point of trying to contribute if Gina was going to get all the plum assignments and all the glory anyway?

Tim’s under utilization of his full team is a common mistake for leaders that is grounded in a reasonable logic: I want to win so I should rely on my best chance (Gina) to get me over the finish line.  Unfortunately for Tim and the team, they consistently fell just short of quarterly goals using this approach.

The underlying problem is Tim was working from a few flawed assumptions that prevented an inclusive culture. Even if they did “win” by hitting their quarterly goal, it was perceived by everyone on the team as a win by Gina, not a win by the team. If the goals were not met, it couldn’t possibly be Gina’s fault it was extenuating circumstances that caused the loss – after all, if they couldn’t win with Gina at the front how could they win at all?

Tim’s case illustrates three flawed leader assumptions about inclusion that hold teams back from winning big:

  1. The strongest performers should get the most opportunity. Leaders frequently fall into the trap of relying too heavily on one or two individuals to get 80% of their results. Business school teaches the “80-20 Rule” and leaders wrongly assume it applies to talent utilization. Leaders generally have a “go to” person and they likely don’t realize the implicit biases they use in choosing those individuals. Even more pernicious, many leaders are unaware others recognize they have favorites and that playing favorites tends to create learned helplessness among other team members. By always having a “go to” and limiting opportunities of others, leaders prevent their up-and-coming team members from being engaged and trying to improve. Opportunity needs to be shared among the team – if someone who is given opportunity fails, they need to be held accountable for learning from the failure and improving.

In the case of Tim and his team, the other three team members pointedly shared with me the sentiment of “why should I bother trying harder if Tim always chooses Gina anyway?” And when the team was expanded to a fourth member for a short time, he was told point blank by his peers to be prepared to sit on the sidelines as “this is Gina’s show.” Who knows if this new person wasn’t better than Gina? Tim certainly would never know, unless he created a culture of inclusion where everyone is expected to contribute, and everyone’s contribution is valued. Tim eventually began to see he could also get more out of Gina if she was not always stretched so thin. Over time the team developed a much more inclusive culture where Gina was not resented quite as much by other team members and she even had some time to mentor one of the newer members who was early in his career and had struggled in his first few assignments.

  1. The cream rises to the top. Nearly every leader I have coached can quickly rank their team from “best” to “struggling most.” They often assume this reflects the natural state of the world –there are strong performers and weak performers and the leader must know which is which. Social scientists have shown repeatedly that individuals can and do behave differently based on their environment and expectations of others. When leaders send messages to employees that they are “the best” they tend to achieve to that expectation, and likewise when someone is struggling their performance often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  While it is true performance varies between individuals, it is also true people are not static. Employees can grow and develop when given the chance after which leader assumptions about individuals are often proven wrong.

In the coaching case I mentioned, Tim was shocked when he gave an assignment to one of his “lessor performers” and she excelled. She was thrilled by Tim’s unexpected confidence in her, felt a renewed sense of engagement for the work (she had been secretly starting to look for a new team), and took an approach to the project that no one else (including Gina) had even considered. Tim suddenly realized he might have two strong performers, not just one.

  1. My top performers today will be my top performers tomorrow. Short term thinking is a hard habit to break for most leaders. They are often rewarded more for hitting a quarterly number, but things like building and retaining top talent gets overlooked. Leaders often focus so heavily on an individual’s current day performance they overlook the employee’s potential. They may not realize how many high potential employees struggle when put into new roles or roles they are not well suited to. Leaders who focus on an employee’s potential in addition to their current day performance create a strong foundation on the team to support ongoing success. Further, by building an inclusive culture where all team members are valued for their skills and unique contributions, leaders can surface and cultivate the future top talent for the team.

In Tim’s case, he didn’t realize two of his lower performing team members had exceptional and unique skills that were not needed for the roles they were being asked to fill. By being hidden in Gina’s shadow, these skills would likely never emerge. Further, he didn’t realize that while Gina was burning herself out by being a single point of failure for the team, the other team members were looking elsewhere and imagining what life might be like on other teams where their skills would be valued. When Tim started to learn more about his other team members and involve them more directly in the team’s efforts a transformation occurred where all four of the team members became highly engaged and highly productive. The team was energized and the results showed. Goals were met, and expectations exceeded. Tim’s team became a place others wanted to join and executives took notice wondering about the secret to the team’s success.

A Caveat. I can already hear readers asking “but wait, isn’t inclusion really about accepting people of all backgrounds, regardless of race/sex/national origin?” Of course, the answer is yes. Which is why I mentioned implicit bias early on. The reason the Ginas of the world may be chosen by leaders is often about some hidden bias – but leaders tend to focus on short term performance and overlook patterns in their own decision making. At its core, inclusion is about involving everyone and so focusing solely on one personal characteristic (race, sex, gender identification, region of the country, religion, language, personal style, etc.) will always end up excluding someone. Leaders are best served by including all, regardless of their personal characteristics.

Final Thoughts

All leaders can build an inclusive culture in which the full talent of the team is leveraged for team success. Inclusion isn’t that complex to understand or create. Inclusive leadership is as simple as seeing the strengths of everyone on the team and actively involving each member. Leaders who follow this path and commit to success driven by full team involvement and a culture where all members contribute will win more in the short term and will sustain their winning ways far into the future.


This article was initially published in the June 2022 issue of Leadership Excellence from HR.com

Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the President and Co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2019 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.