Creating Inclusion - Notes from the Field
A conversation with Jenny Zhao
Our very first Notes from the Field is with Jenny Zhao, Sr. Director of Product at Asurion.
I first met Jenny when we worked together at Asurion. In a short time, it became obvious that Jenny’s superpower is her ability to quickly build high-performing, inclusive teams. Since we worked together, Jenny has only gotten better at creating psychologically safe workplaces where everyone feels included and empowered to do their best work.
We’ve discussed inclusion around here before, I couldn’t think of a better person for all of us to learn from. Plus, she’s hiring!
Jenny was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss how she builds inclusion, how she manages team members who contribute a bit too much, how she helps introverts express their views, and why taking a cookie-cutter approach to psychological safety is a mistake. Inclusion is a hard thing to create but Jenny’s advice makes it much easier.
I hope you enjoy it!
How do you build a culture of inclusion on your teams?
This largely depends on the circumstance.
The things I do come from the experience of not being heard at points in my career. Empathy is a strong vehicle for growth.
The first thing that helped me was when someone would stop a conversation and create space for me to be heard, so I try to do the same thing for others.
If I feel like someone is getting glossed over or has said something that nobody reacted to, I'll try to react or ask a pointed question to direct attention back to the person.
In scenarios where you are seeking everybody's opinion, a second tactic is to create a system that invites those opinions. What I mean by that: instead of relying solely on people volunteering their thoughts, create a structure where you go around the room so each person has an opportunity to speak, and each person is expected to contribute. It can help because having such a structure democratizes the space.
You can also use web tools like Miro if you’re remote or sticky notes in-person to crowdsource ideas in writing versus only verbally. Better yet, provide topics in advance so that people who don’t do as well in the moment have time to reflect and contribute.
Oftentimes, you have some personality types that will speak a lot (myself included) and others that rarely or never contribute. For the latter, it may be because they haven’t been asked directly or because by the time they’ve formulated their point, they don’t get an opportunity to interject. They may wait and after time passes, they will have opted to not speak since the moment has passed, and the conversation has moved on. If you actually want to hear everyone's opinions, you need to be deliberate about creating a structure that allows for that to happen.
Third, if someone is taking up too much air time, I may cut them off (nicely) and direct the discussion to someone who hasn't spoken yet, saying something like, “Hey, what do you think? I’m interested in your thoughts?” and again, creating space for someone to contribute.
All of this only works if contributing is a positive experience for people, and they feel their thoughts are genuinely considered and validated.
What works with introverts?
Building inclusive environments for people who are introverted or thinkers is about meeting them where they are.
That means if someone needs more time to process, clear agendas ahead of time helps; therefore, when you go into the meeting, they've had time to process and think and are ready to contribute. It creates a more even playing field.
Not everyone processes best by thinking quickly on their feet. So recognizing that and making sure all meetings have an agenda attached gives time for people to prepare beforehand.
How do you manage people who love to talk?
Timers help coupled with coaching.
For example, I’ll pull them aside and say “Hey, I love your ideas and contributions, but I’ve noticed you take up a lot of the team’s time in meetings and other voices are getting limited as a result. Are you aware of that?”
Sometimes, I may try to summarize the point the person is rambling on about, get their agreement that that’s the point they are trying to make, and then redirect the conversation to someone else to contribute their thoughts.
Ultimately, you can help people improve their communication style by making them aware. Coaching helps people get better and adjust how they communicate quickly.
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to build an inclusive culture?
I think the number one mistake, that I've made as well, is trying to apply inclusion in a cookie-cutter way.
The whole point of inclusivity is that people are different. There are many great techniques, but inclusion is really rooted in getting to know your team and figuring out what works for them.
It’s about understanding how people operate, how they communicate, and what makes the best environment to truly unlock their talents.
The number one mistake is to try to apply different tips and tricks without understanding the people you’re working with. You have to take the time to get to know them, talk to them, and work with them so you can bring the best out of each other.
🙏 Big thanks to Jenny for sharing her insights!
If there’s a person you’d like to hear from or a topic you’d like for us to cover please let me know. Otherwise, we’ll see you next week!