3 Skills to Create an Inclusive Team that Unleashes Creativity and Innovation

Minette Norman, former VP of Engineering Practice at Autodesk, explores how she ended up building and leading a localization team of 100 and other transformative leadership lessons that diminish silos and unlock creativity.


What would it be like if everyone in an organization could feel free and confident to speak up, take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them?

Minette Norman is an Inclusive Leadership Consultant who helps countless organizations and workforces develop healthy culture, embrace inclusion, diminish silos, and unlock creativity.

With a firm belief that organizations thrive when they can leverage diverse ideas and talent, she spent many years leading and transforming multicultural teams and engineers around the world. Here are some of the most important things she learned over the years of her career.

Watch the session in its entirety for Minette’s story on how she went from graduating with theatre and French degrees to leading 3,000 engineers around the globe.

Listen with Curiosity without Getting Defensive

One of the most powerful and positive interpersonal skills is the ability to listen with curiosity and without getting defensive. It’s a skill that sounds simple, but it's surprisingly rare.

According to James Tamm, the author of “Radical Collaboration,” the biggest inhibitor to collaboration is our own defensiveness. Instead of listening, we tend to be preparing our response.

When we get challenged, we get defensive, and our fight or flight response kicks in because we are trying to keep ourselves safe. A social attack is no different from a physical attack on our brains. At this point, we no longer have our higher reasoning available to us.

Listening with curiosity without getting defensive takes practice. The first step to practicing it is being aware of how we react when we get defensive. That is how we will be able to control our defensiveness and our actions that follow.

When you notice your signs of defensiveness, just pause for a second and take a breath. In that breath, we can get back our higher reasoning. Instead of fighting, we can now ask a curious question and have a collaborative dialogue.

This is so important in the workforce because everyone plays a role in creating an atmosphere where ideas can come forth. But if we're always shooting down other people's opinions, innovation is not going to happen.

Listening is the beginning of creating a vibrant, innovative, and inclusive organization where all the voices can be heard, especially the voices that challenge us. With defensiveness in an organization, it is hard for everyone to speak up, and we cannot benefit from each other’s unique perspectives that we need for innovation and growth.

So practice it. It is something we can practice for the rest of our lives, but it is powerful and will change our relationships and the dynamics in our workplace.

Exercise Empathy

The next skill that is often underestimated and goes hand in hand with the first skill is exercising empathy.

Empathy is the ability to imagine what it's like to be in someone else's position. In our workforce, no one works alone. We rely on others for their expertise. When we work in cross-functional teams, it is easy to blame other people when things go wrong.

And yet, if we can start to use our empathy to imagine what the other person or the team is dealing with, we can leverage their expertise and solve problems together.

Empathy is not something soft or weak. In fact, it's a critical business skill. It also doesn't mean that you agree with everything the other person believes or says if you’re empathetic. Instead, the empathetic awareness of others helps foster an environment where everyone can do their best work together.

Some people are more empathetic than others, but all of us have the capacity to improve and train our empathy. One of the best ways to do that is to spend time with people who are the least like us, such as those from different backgrounds. Try getting to know them and their cultures.

When we ask questions with genuine curiosity and listen with our undivided attention, that increases empathy. We are naturally drawn to people like us, but people who are different from us are the ones who will help us grow. When you're having trouble having empathy for someone, you can also try looking for any piece of common ground.

Empathy is powerful and will help change the dynamics positively for you and others in the workplace.

Be Inclusive

As we practice our listening and empathy skills, with those skills as the foundation, we begin to practice one of the most critical skills: being inclusive. At some point, we have all experienced an environment where we didn't feel that we belonged.

The need for inclusion and belonging is hardwired into human brains. When experiencing exclusion, our brain registers pain. To our brain, social pain and physical pain are taken similarly.

The goal of every organization should be to make sure everyone feels included. We do not want our employees to be feeling emotional, social pain at work. Instead, we want them to feel they are valued, respected, accepted, and that they can fully participate in the organization. So how do we start making our teams more inclusive?

Listening and empathy we mentioned earlier are the foundation for inclusivity.

Start with the little things. For example, try practicing being more inclusive in meetings. Pay attention to who is interrupting others and who is getting interrupted. If someone is getting cut off in the middle of saying something, be an ally and invite the person back to finish what they were saying. Set an expectation for the team that everyone can share their ideas and opinions without being interrupted.

Those being constantly interrupted can feel that their voice doesn't matter or are not respected or heard. Again, we want all voices to be heard to foster an innovative and improving organization.

We could also look for who might always be speaking and who tend to stay quiet. Then find ways to amplify the quiet voices, whether through facilitation or using pen and paper. There are many ways we can get all the ideas on the table, but one of the most important things we can do is create an environment where everyone can speak up, take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them without fear of being embarrassed or excluded.

Key Takeaways:

  • Listen with curiosity, especially to those from different backgrounds and with whom we might disagree.
  • Keep developing and exercising empathy, remembering that we are all human.
  • Be the inclusive human that everyone dreams of working with and that every organization around the globe needs.

That is what makes the foundation of a healthy, innovative organization that continuously learns and improves. Wherever we live and whatever field we are in, we hope everyone will join us in making positive changes in our work environments!

Watch the session in its entirety for a Q&A with Minette.