Pedicures, Beers, And Belonging.

I joined a Microsoft Teams meeting last week and the 10 women in the team were already present, chatting about hoodie fashion, I think. I tried to turn the conversation towards golf shirts, but they weren’t biting. This is a story about inclusion and belonging.

I once worked in a department that was mainly women. One of the teams in the department organized a teambuilding. They had only one man in their team. They decided to go for a pedicure, where they could hang out and chat and relax. They invited the man, and he went along.

We had a culture of Friday night drinks in our office, and my teambuildings were often “activity + beers” focused, a place I felt at home. Then the team I led started to turn over membership. A couple of the newer people in the team were young and very different to me. I had to start updating the way I oriented. A typical question I used to ask myself in the hiring process was “Would I go out for a beer with this person?” i.e. will they fit in the team?

Well, suddenly the fit changed, and I had to update my thought process. For one thing, these people weren’t drinkers (which, apparently, is a thing)! And even if they were, they wouldn’t want to have a beer with an old geezer like me! Ha.

By the time we hired a Muslim colleague into the team, the old ‘drinking’ way had run its course. They showed up to teambuilding “activity + beers” events and drank pop and were quieter(!) and left earlier than the rest of us. “Oh, it’s fine,” they said. “We’ll come for a bit after work.”

What to do? We had a tried and tested formula. We knew it drove connection within and across teams. It was a small part of our cultural platform; the results remembered and recalled. These practices were woven into our organizational fabric. They worked.

And…we had to change them.

We didn’t have to find a thing that everyone loved to do, our self-evaluations were too different. But we needed to find things that more people loved to do. My engagement does not count for more than yours (even if I am the HIPPO (highest paid person in the office).

The work of leadership gets more subtle when you have diversity; the planning slightly more detailed, even complicated. The outcome, though, is more inclusive and the experience of belonging more available to all.

Later, the other team were organizing their next teambuilding. The pedicure had been a great success; it was the favoured activity. This time, the man politely declined, without animosity. He had done his bit to fit, but no more. “You have fun!” Was that ok?

I have never been invited to a teambuilding at my new job. I hope that is because of COVID shutdown, and not just because the team don’t want me to share their pedicure! 😉

What’s my point here?

Look to the edges of the meeting or the team – to those whose fit is not exact. Think about their lived experiences. Those who are different often carry a cognitive and cultural weight that you do not. Acknowledge and work to overcome it – and that means you doing work, not them.

People do not bring culture fit, they bring culture add. Meeting chit-chat and teambuilding activities should work for all. If you are of the majority / homogeneous group, pick up knowledge and ask questions about the others. Guaranteed they will know more about hockey than they ever wanted to – now it’s your turn to grow.

BTW, if stock photography rings true, there is a new corporate policy that, post-COVID, all teambuildings must include at least 5 minutes of group hand-holding, hand-stacking, and fist-bumps? What do you think of the new policy?

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