As Amy Edmondson says in Psychology Today, “building a fearless, inclusive organization that realizes the benefits of diversity through greater inclusion and belonging, is the most important goal for any leader today”.
I couldn’t agree more. And like Edmondson, I think that psychological safety is necessary for developing and implementing robust diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging policies.
Diversity does not equal inclusion
First, an important note. I’ve seen many companies make the mistake of thinking that they’ve got diversity down pat, so there’s no need to do further work. But having good hiring policies which lead to a diverse workforce does not mean you’ll be able to unlock its many benefits.
To quote Amy Edmondson’s article again:
“Although diversity can be created through deliberate hiring practices, inclusion does not automatically follow. To begin with, everyone hired may not find themselves included in important discussions and decisions. Going deeper, having a diverse workforce most certainly does not guarantee that everyone in your organization feels a sense of belonging.”
To make sure everyone is included in discussions, feels like they belong and ultimately sees space for themselves and people like them at the top, psychological safety is key.
Listening and learning
If you’re serious about creating robust D&I policies (or improving your current ones), you’ll probably have to face up to some uncomfortable truths. You’ll need to ask your employees what needs to change, which means acknowledging what isn’t working now.
Obviously, having that dialogue requires two things: for your employees to feel safe speaking up about those issues; and for you to actually listen.
Psychological safety enables exactly that sort of necessary but difficult conversation. It helps everyone feel comfortable with being uncomfortable, in the knowledge that it’s in everyone’s interest to be upfront and honest.
Retaining diverse talent
In HBR’s Women at Work podcast, wellbeing expert Mandy O’Neill cites a long-term study of Berkeley MBAs, which found successful women leaving C-suite-track jobs at a higher rate than men. The reason? O’Neill says “they were experiencing burnout so severely that the so-called opt-out option was more attractive,” partly due to additional “office chores” and “invisible tasks” which they were expected to take on “because of, in some cases, expectations about who should be dealing with it”.
Things like emotional labour and code-switching are a huge energy drain. One of the core aims of psychological safety is enabling everyone to bring their full selves to work, removing this unnecessary extra labour people have to do on top of their actual jobs. This helps prevent burnout, and the concomitant loss of diverse, talented employees.
In other words, even if you have a great D&I policy on paper, without strong psychological safety you’ll lose talented employees, especially as you move up the ranks.
Internalised prejudices can show up as imposter syndrome, where a well-qualified person questions their own credentials, often meaning they don’t share good ideas or trust their own judgement.
Good D&I policies explicitly state that the organisation wants to hear everyone’s voices. By actively encouraging an open exchange of ideas and perspectives on a team level, psychological safety helps to practically reinforce this point.
Worried that your ideas aren’t good enough? No problem, there are no bad ideas here, so share them anyway! Over time, being listened to with respect and having your ideas taken seriously helps chip away at imposter syndrome.
Having learned to trust their own voice is worth hearing, a person may still come up against testimonial injustice, in which their ideas or opinions are disregarded because of prejudice about their identity. The classic workplace example is of a woman making a point which is ignored, then her male co-worker being praised for making the same point. But of course, it happens for many reasons beyond gender, too.
Again, good D&I policies explicitly condemn this kind of behaviour, but it’s through psychological safety that those policies are meaningfully implemented. Not only will it make people feel confident in reporting incidents of discrimination, but it will enable them to address the issues at the time if appropriate, in the knowledge that their team will trust them, support them and listen to them.