Inclusivity: the Key to Handling Complexity

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I was recently in the Middle East, in Amman, Jordan, having lunch at a local restaurant. At the next table, there was a woman in full burka seated with three men. The men were chatting away while the woman sat there struggling to eat and drink through her burka. I could have easily been irritated by the limitations that her society put on her, requiring her to wear such garb, but I was more struck by what her society is losing because of these limitations. The societies that are thriving these days are the ones that can handle the greatest complexity, and this requires integrating diverse perspectives, such as the masculine and the feminine. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete when you’ve only embraced one side of a spectrum. We can see clear evidence of this in business, and neuroscience proves it beyond doubt.

Consider Paul, the CEO of a trucking company, with whom I used to work. Paul was an authoritative leader and wouldn’t listen to differing perspectives from his employees unless they had the guts to challenge him. His reasoning was that if an employee didn’t have the guts to be adversarial with him, they weren’t strong enough to be heard. He thought he was ensuring the survival of the fittest, but the irony is that the fittest team is the one that is inclusive, because they are building the capabilities to handle the greatest complexity. Paul learned this the hard way.

Shutting down the perspectives of others is severely limiting in business, and Paul shows us why. He was wired for competition, and believed that under-bidding and putting other trucking companies out of business was the way to win. The reality is that yes, it’s important to be able to compete, yet his company was eventually out-done by others that knew when to compete by showing they were the best and when to collaborate by building partnerships. Paul should have listened to those who understood the power of collaboration. Similarly, Paul was fanatical about making decisions based on data analytics rather than gut feeling. It’s true that data analytics are powerful and important, yet Paul’s company eventually fell behind more innovative competitors that knew when to rely on data and when to use intuitive insight. He would have benefitted by listening to those who understood the power of intuition. Paul didn’t survive long in his position.

Paul may be an extreme example, but I question how many teams truly embrace diversity and inclusivity of thought. Our world has become too complex for narrow thinking. It used to be effective for a strong-willed leader to impose his perspective. But now we need to move away from “either or” thinking and into “both and”. We get there by honoring diversity and inclusion, which even helps develop our brains to handle greater complexity.

Team communication that honors the different thoughts and experiences of each member and then links them together not only provides broader perspective, it also literally rewires the brains of each team member. When people are exposed to different ways of thinking and they truly listen until it “clicks” for them, this activates and stimulates the growth of neurons in the brain. It literally rewires the neuronal fibers in the nervous system and provides the brainpower required to deal with greater complexity.

I used to think that diversity and inclusion were only about everyone having equal rights, but now I see that they are crucial to the thriving of a team or society. As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Greg  December 18, 2012


    “Team communication that honors the different thoughts and experiences of each member and then links them together not only provides broader perspective, it also literally rewires the brains of each team member. When people are exposed to different ways of thinking and they truly listen until it “clicks” for them, this activates and stimulates the growth of neurons in the brain. It literally rewires the neuronal fibers in the nervous system and provides the brainpower required to deal with greater complexity.” – Loved the article and especially this paragraph!!

    “What fires together, wires together!” Joe Dispenza

    Sustainably Yours,

  2. Wayne Hall  December 18, 2012

    It seems diversity combined with collabration drive innovation, the source if future wealth. Embracing different perspective is counter to what we are often taught. It seems this is exactly what we need to do for solutions to the most complex of problem, wicked problems.

  3. Russ Wylie  December 18, 2012

    G’day Jackie, I really like your observation that “… it also rewires the brains of each team member.” Great point! We all affect each other … and in more ways than is often expected or considered. A mind touched by a new influence/new idea, never returns to its’ original dimension.

  4. Christina  December 20, 2012

    Thanks Jackie. Excellent article adding great value to thoughtleaders. Global thinking is changing fast for the best……Keep sharing girl!

  5. James Hewlett  December 30, 2012

    We have a large multi-site team that is VERY diverse ( and as the Executive Director, I have learned that you need to have people invested in the complex problems so that they feel comfortable being part of solutions. In typical org. structures, the individuals at the bottom of the org. chart feel that complex issues are left to those at the top. This needs to be flipped. You need to put those closest to the problem on the task of helping develop the solutions. Before you can leverage the power of your diversity, you first need to develop the culture of “team” and highlight the investment that everyone needs to be making.

  6. Rebecca Colwell  December 30, 2012

    couldn’t agree with you more Jackie – and the kind of leadership that enables this way of engaging the team, group or stakeholders has evolved far beyond simple consensus building and feel good processes. We’ve been working to identify the facilitative leadership competencies and are offering a new advanced facilitation / facilitative leadership development program in NA & Europe in 2013. I look forward to reading your ebook 🙂 thanks so much

  7. Denis Kelly  December 30, 2012

    A very interesting topic and one I am looking forward to following. The ability of a team to work effectively together particularly in complex situations and under stress is a topic I am very keen to explore. A few aspects that I have come across are Set up to fail syndrome, which shows the negative impact of poor people management including exclusion, and The Double S Cube which show how different cultures, and hence team styles, work well in different circumstances.

    Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux published a paper in the HBR which detailed set-up to fail syndrome. This is similar in a number of ways to the points covered in the article you references. Writing off the contribution of others and undermining their contribution can have very negative impacts. Worth a read and keep in mind how positive affirmation and support builds personal and team effectiveness.

    Goffee and Jones have proposed an organisational culture model The Double S Cube, HBR also, which suggests both fragmented and integrated organisation cultures are effective. If the culture drives the teaming style it is fair to say that a number of different teaming styles can be effective and there is no one ideal solution. Following this line of thinking would suggest that teams can bee very fragmented, highly integrated or a mix of both. The expectations of individuals in the team can be one of a highly sociable team or one which is very individualistic and transactional. So in some cases you may end up with a highly effective hierarchical team with directive communications from the top – crisis teams, military teams, police, etc which are very effective.

    What is the continuum of team styles? Can we be over inclusive? What level of inclusiveness is ideal and how is it defined?

    How can we best define the team style for dealing with complex and stressful situations?

  8. Binod Atreya  January 1, 2013

    I feel that, sharing of information, opening dialogue, respecting all members in team, exploring all resources from a team, encouraging each other, developing trust among the team members are important elements for building a cohesive team. Once a strong team exist in the organization, then the team would be better able to deal with the complexity. Complexity is a given condition in present days due to massive changes taking place in the areas of knowledge, IT, values and culture and so on. Team members must also be given exposures continuously to upgrade themselves with the changing environment. Team must be formed depending upon the nature of the complexity so that they are capable to handle the given issue.

  9. Leksana TH  February 3, 2013

    The ability of team member to be free from pressure of conforming answers or opinions is vital to the richness in ideas exchange. The role of a leader or facilitator is vital to this exchange and “cooking process”. Much of the outcomes on handling complexity also depends on the ability to shift perceptions from each stakeholder’s point of view and leverage this to disentangle likely scenarios of solutions or responses.


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