Many years ago I played on a school soccer team. We’d spend most mornings in class and most afternoons and nights traveling to matches against other schools in the area. We were forced to work together and accept each other’s differences in order to advance in regional tournaments.
Years later, I joined an after-work social soccer league that paired me with other professionals around the city. We’d been put together at random, but we still had to work together for the next 12 weeks as a cohesive unit. Yet during that time, we never came together like we hoped. We lost most of our games and got frustrated with each other, and some players even quit before the season ended.
I never thought to compare these two experiences until I started working for a marketing team that shared many of the qualities of my school league. And what’s clear to me now is that how well we knew each other off the field impacted how well we played on it.
We spend a lot of our time with our colleagues, working toward a set of goals we can only achieve through teamwork. Still, few of us know our co-workers beyond the hints they give during office hours. We don’t usually have a clear understanding of their backgrounds, beliefs, struggles, families, friends, significant others, etc.
Despite all that missing context, there are professional teams that learn to gel. Cohesiveness in the workplace starts with an open and honest accounting of every player’s strengths and differences. Here are a few steps in that direction teams can take.
It took me a while to come out as a gay man to my family and friends. Not because they wouldn’t accept me, but because I hadn’t yet accepted myself. This fear of personal failure followed me through college and into my first few jobs. I remember the first time I acknowledged my orientation in the office and how my colleagues reacted to this admission. I never looked back.
There’s a certain sense of security every workplace needs to provide employees to empower them to be the best versions of themselves. Recently, LGBT Americans have seen their rights protected under new legislation, signaling that society has—slowly—become more tolerant, an impression that new research backs up.
According to a paper published in the journal Social Forces, researchers at the University of Georgia found Americans are now more likely than ever to believe people with views and lifestyles that are different than their own should share the same rights.
Lead researcher and San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean M. Twenge says about her team’s findings, “When old social rules disappear, people have more freedom to live their lives as they want to.”
But even though Americans may be growing more tolerant and laws more inclusive, that isn’t always enough to make individuals feel comfortable at work. Organizations have to take the lead in fostering team dynamics that make everyone feel engaged and inspired.
I’m lucky because I’ve never felt discriminated against at any job. But I’ve noticed a difference between teams that have embraced individuality and those that try to keep personal differences on the sidelines.
Managers who actively show they care about their employees as people create environments that foster efficiency and long-term loyalty among team members. When individuals feel accepted, no matter their backgrounds, it’s kind of like finding home again.
In a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, managers who create a culture where they put their employees’ needs over their own saw improvements in customer satisfaction, higher performance by employees, and lower turnover rates.
This leading-by-example management style trickles down through the ranks, resulting in teamwork, loyalty, and dedication to the business and its customers. Open-mindedness and acceptance doesn’t just lead to a safer work environment for individuals—it generates meaningful business metrics that can impact revenue, retention rates, and beyond.
Company leaders know they need to invest in their employees in order for business to thrive. Learning about each person and making them feel safe and accepted is part of that process, and it’s crucial for developing a team that sticks together and delivers.
There’s no step-by-step guide to encouraging tolerance in the workplace. But in her recent ESPYs award speech, Caitlyn Jenner made a point that goes for every organization: education and familiarity is critical.
No matter who’s on your team or how big it is, you’ll inevitably be paired with people you have to get to know and understand before you can work together successfully. Learning how to communicate with different personalities, understanding workplace issues minorities face, and adopting management styles that encourage those things can go a long way—not just in the workplace but outside it, too.