Rise Thought Leadership

Ecosystem Perspective

Why disharmony is an inclusive team’s greatest asset

Alem Sendaba
COO & General Counsel

Array is a software company that enables fintechs and financial institutions to provide credit, identity and privacy tools that help their consumers take control of their financial lives. A couple years ago, as Array was gaining traction in the market, I was asked to build out the company’s legal and compliance functions. While these are critical functions in any organisation, in our heavily regulated domain, these teams are the heartbeat of our business.

Diverse and inclusive teams make better, more innovative decisions. This fact has been proven time and again across numerous studies, assessing everything from the quality of a team’s decisions to the speed with which those decisions are made1. Given the challenges our growing business was facing, I wanted to give our legal and compliance teams every advantage possible. But diversity and inclusion weren’t simply inputs to better organisational output. I knew this team would be tasked with representing and protecting the needs of the clients and consumers Array aims to serve. To strike a unique balance of maximising client value and mitigating potential consumer harm, this team would have to move fast, innovate and be comfortable challenging environments.

Inclusive team building doesn’t happen on its own

Over time, we successfully built a team of thoughtful and engaging legal and compliance professionals from a variety of diverse backgrounds. And while I thought we were up and running, I began to notice that we actually lacked inclusivity in, of all places, our team meetings. I noticed that people edited themselves in larger groups, deferred to authority and were hesitant to offer potentially controversial opinions. As someone who’s had years of personal experience falling into these same traps, I was profoundly disheartened when I noticed these behaviors occurring within the teams I was trying to carefully build. As a leader, I had to question whether I was truly working to build an inclusive environment or simply the illusion of one.

Inclusivity is not a passive by-product of having a diverse team. And having a diverse team doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be easier for folks to engage in healthy, open dialogue to challenge the status quo. As I thought about it, I realised I needed to change the way I constructed our shared spaces from forums for consensus building to laboratories for disagreement and disharmony.

While this work is far easier said than done, the following principles challenged me to think differently about how my teams engaged. Here are a few quick steps to building a more inclusive—thus effective—team.

Define the rules—together

First, we had to be explicit about the space we were collectively creating: a safe space where no ideas were off-limits, and where we had a shared objective of learning together and making better collective decisions. Beyond work, we began to create spaces (e.g. monthly non-work lunches, ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions) and protecting the opening minutes of team meetings for connecting on a personal level before grappling with more controversial issues. While these instances were often informal, with consistency over time, these sessions helped us to establish trust, create norms and give everyone a shared sense of ownership over our collective spaces. Through this type of relationship building, we were then able to translate our collective rapport into thoughtful dialogue about how we would engage in challenging topics. After healthy debate, each person committed to:

  1.  Having open and difficult conversations, particularly when they sensed they may hold an unpopular point of view.
  2.  Being receptive to changing our thinking when presented with new information.
  3.  Situating our discussions within the priorities we are trying to accomplish as a team to avoid veering too far off track.
  4.  Bringing data, where available, to bolster or challenge our positions.

Sometimes, to drive real inclusivity, you must first invite disharmony. Our goal was not to create spaces that drive agreement and consensus. Rather, we aimed to create spaces where differing opinions are expressed openly, and teams collectively and respectfully engaged in challenging ideas that ultimately deliver better outcomes.

Encourage disharmony (without the harm)

It’s not enough to bring well-intentioned people in a room together if the room itself isn’t designed to promote new ideas and methods of dignified discourse. Ultimately, even if your team develops a strong and supportive dynamic, the established norms within your team may not seamlessly extend to the organisational level.

This tension became apparent to me in larger company settings, where I over-asserted myself to defend my team's perspectives and shielding them from opposing views that I perceived as threatening. The irony is now evident; I had intentionally cultivated a team capable of navigating challenging discourse, yet I mistakenly assumed that the behaviours we practiced together required safeguarding when applied more broadly. In reality, I learned that my team was well-equipped to collaborate effectively with cross-functional partners, and I failed to recognise that my instincts contradicted the inclusivity we had diligently fostered.

Actively self-reflect

As leaders, our task isn’t to simply get all the voices in one room. The real challenge lies in creating an environment in which all the voices have the space and respect to be heard. We must constantly reflect on our own behaviours to ensure that trust, confidence and vulnerability aren’t being compromised.

Organisations must go beyond the illusion of inclusion and create team environments that enable disparate voices to be heard and valued.

The path towards inclusivity, however difficult, is clear. To pave the way forward, you’ll need deep listeners, empathetic collaborators and a little disharmony.

1 NeuroLeadership