by Nancy Williams, Perkins Coie LLP
Photos by Gloria Masters, Wolfstone, Panchot & Bloch, PS Inc.
Most folks involved in the delivery of legal services would agree that the best results for a client are the product of teamwork. But how do we go about building and sustaining the most effective team? One important factor is having each member of the team feel included and appreciated. PSALA’s recent program on “How to Build an Inclusive Environment—Using Inclusive Leadership” provided an opportunity to focus on how to come closer to achieving that goal.
Anh Vo, facilitator for the session, helped us recognize how we all draw distinctions and comparisons between people, including those with whom we work. In fact, a law firm environment draws distinctions from the get-go – between lawyers and non-lawyers. With each distinction drawn, there is a related level of privilege. It’s easy to be oblivious to this fact and how our actions and choice of words can reinforce relative rank and status. Those who have privilege (e.g., lawyers vis a vis non-lawyers) often fail to perceive the power and influence that goes along with their “rank” in the organization. At the same time, team members who see their status as less important may feel alienated, hurt or angry, or that their contributions are not valued and acknowledged.
Vo encouraged participants to focus on self-awareness to disrupt the potentially negative impact of rank distinctions. For team leaders, this means first recognizing the human tendency to make power comparisons and then taking positive steps to minimize the effects on inclusiveness. Being aware and reducing use of linguistic labels and “insider” terminology can help us avoid alienating newcomers or others who feel like “outsiders” in the organization. Other steps include monitoring tone and gestures in group communications and recognizing even subtle differences in treatment toward team members. Nothing indicates more clearly to others that their input is not important than a team leader who appears distracted or “multi-tasks” (e.g., checking a phone for messages) when they are speaking.
Many experts tell us that the strongest teams include a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints produce the best results. We often think of diversity only in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, age and similar legally protected characteristics. Vo’s presentation broadened the perspective to include other factors that are the basis for distinctions in rank and privilege. To promote an inclusive environment, team leaders can start by taking a good look at their personal perception of leadership, engagement, rank and power. From there, they can consider different models to minimize such distinctions within their team. The more each team member feels included and valued, the more successful the team’s results will be.