Why building trust improves diversity, inclusion and productivity

How can business leaders avoid groupthink, combat attrition and boost productivity? By creating an environment that is diverse, inclusive and open 


As businesses seek to translate their diversity and inclusion commitments into the everyday workplace environment, the foundation of trust is crucial. 

It is the fundamental mechanism through which leaders enable collaboration and communication, and it nurtures diversity of thought where opinions and ideas can thrive and teams can develop their resilience.

Throughout my career, I have often been pushed towards consensus-based decision-making and conformity. I have sometimes resisted and sometimes conformed. The resistance has always impacted my wellbeing negatively. But in terms of productivity, resisting conformity has been the right thing to do. My most innovative work has happened either when I have had outlier ideas, or I have taken the time to listen to the outlier ideas of other people and enabled them in their execution. 

The benefits of trust are not confined to the DE&I agenda, but its impact will help stimulate a culture of innovation, where staff feel safe to make mistakes and try new things with the ensuing bottom line benefits.

So, why are we usually forced to conform? Why aren’t individual workers regularly encouraged to raise outlier ideas in the workplace? The answer is simple. We don’t have enough inclusive leaders across all levels of firms enabling talent in this way. Too often there are low levels of trust within teams or, more generally, within the walls of organisations. Trust allows all talent to contribute fully and thrive. 

To cultivate higher trust in their teams and beyond, leaders of teams big and small should consider the following six principles.

Make it clear to your team that you have a positive diversity mindset

To promote the trust of all talent it is necessary to have a positive diversity mindset. This implies the leader themselves recognises that it is a gift to have diverse voices in their team. Diversity improves product creation, customer service, risk assessment and innovation.

It’s strange to want to hire replicas of yourself but without inclusive leadership that has a diversity mindset, it is common. Leaders build trust when they regularly state aloud that they believe diverse perspectives bring better business outcomes and use the diverse perspectives offered in their decision-making.

Facilitate productive rather than happy teams

Leaders need to aim for more than facilitating the formation of happy teams; what makes the team happy isn’t always positive or good. A team can be happy because they spend all day focusing on unproductive work and are engaged in too many social meetings, or they can be happy if they are engaged in groupthink.

But a team can also be happy because they embrace dissent or vigorously discuss ideas in a manner that is comfortable and allows for better business outcomes, in addition to each team member’s growth. This is the sweet spot that also enhances trust as each team member can see they are valued for what they bring to the organisation.

Evoke a 5:95 rule

On average, 5% of our daily tasks require us to engage our colleagues in conversation. Rather than wasting time on minor internal issues by calling team meetings, business leaders should use meetings to prioritise important matters such as hiring and team development.

Not only does eliciting the team’s views on the most important matters send a clear message of inclusion, but it also capitalises on every employee’s diverse experiences to drive better decision-making. In addition, leaders must ensure that any independent decision-making that occurs in the remaining 95% of the time is rationalised and communicated clearly to the team to build trust further. Transparency is key.

Encourage an open dialogue

Intransigent workplace hierarchies have been proven to stifle experimentation and progression, and limit team cohesion. By requesting employees’ opinions in a group setting, leaders ensure that their workforce feels involved, accountable and – crucially – empowered to shape the business. When chairing a meeting to elicit diverse views, leaders should not open by voicing their own opinions. Instead, leaders should encourage new insights from group members by actively requesting participants to ‘tell me something I don’t know’.

This technique, called priming, prompts a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus. Team members are more likely to communicate unique information in this dynamic, sharing unusual and sometimes challenging ideas that could have otherwise gone unspoken. Not only will this tactic provide employees with the space to express themselves safely, but the emphasis on new ideas will also encourage innovation and boost efficiency.

Promote autonomy

One of the quickest and most effective ways to create mistrust is to adopt a micro-managing system. If managers constantly check someone’s work, don’t allow them to take their own ideas forward, and give them little room for development, employees will feel a deep sense of mistrust within the organisation.

Instead, managers should be encouraged to allow people to develop and grow in ways that suit them, giving them the opportunity to put their unique spin on things and increase the diversity of thought across the organisation.

Reward success, rather than penalising failure

To promote workplace trust, it is essential to cultivate a frank and fair working environment. As part of this, leaders must afford due weight to team successes. Endeavour to set this tone by regularly celebrating small victories, perhaps through a dedicated and informal weekly meeting. Not only does this counter failures and encourage employees to innovate in pursuit of similar successes but taking stock can help to identify formulas to drive future victories.

Fostering a workplace which is cemented in trust is no easy feat. It requires steadfast determination from leaders across the business to ensure that it is not regulated as a ‘nice to have’. Enhancing trust in the ways described above also stands to greatly benefit underrepresented talent. I have worked with many companies and individuals, developing inclusive leaders who have cultivated trust in these ways.

Something important occurs when a team has a leader with a diversity mindset who prioritises trust building. Nobody is forced to conform. Each team member feels psychologically safe and is much more likely to seize the opportunity to demonstrate their full talent and genius. More unique perspectives are heard. Leaders who foster trust in these ways create inclusive microcultures, implying that underrepresented employees can thrive regardless of the overall culture of the organisation. These leaders have better retention of talent, higher levels of job satisfaction among their team members and better team performance.

Dr Grace Lordan is the founding director of The Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics