As Matthew Syed explains in Rebel Ideas, the best ideas come from having a diverse range of voices in the room. But – and this is key – that only works if those voices are actually raised.
I find the ever-shifting conversations around diversity and inclusion fascinating. I’ve explored the topic from many different angles before, looking at the importance of difficult conversations, the complexity of assessing the impact of diversity, and how to lead a diverse team.
But recently, I’ve been thinking about one nuance of that conversation in particular: how do you get the most out of a diverse workforce? Because it’s not enough to hire a wide range of people, then just assume your company will benefit.
I’ve come to realise that Amy Edmondson’s idea of psychological safety, as explained in The Fearless Organization, is the secret ingredient to getting the most out of diverse teams. Here’s why.
Trust needs to be built
When someone comes from a marginalised or minority group, they’re often used to dealing with bias and prejudice. As such, you need to actively deal with those issues before they come up, and make sure those employees know they’re in a safe and welcoming environment.
Trust is earned, and it can take time to build. Psychological safety is the strongest foundation for building that long-term trust within a team.
Mistakes are human
Being in a psychologically safe workplace creates space for people to learn and improve. It means they can ask when they’re not sure about something, without fear that they’ll be ridiculed for not knowing. Just as importantly, it means that other team members can let them know when they make a mistake, without worrying they’ll get defensive or feel attacked.
On a psychologically safe team, everyone acknowledges their fallibility. And everyone is trying to learn.
Culture add, not culture fit
A workplace with a “culture fit” model relies on people code switching. That is, on people presenting themselves differently in spaces where they’re the minority, to minimise any friction that difference might create.
Of course, this often means they’re not bringing their full, authentic selves to work. They may not share some ideas or raise certain issues for fear of being ignored or looked down on, or seen as causing trouble.
A “culture add” approach aims instead to create an environment where people feel safe expressing their full selves – even when it might create conflict or awkwardness. Psychological safety is a necessity with this approach. It makes it clear that the team values cultural differences, and absolutely doesn’t want to suppress them.
Healthy conflict leads to new ideas
In order to innovate, conflict is necessary. As Syed points out, to come up with the best solutions to problems we need to consider as wide a range of viewpoints as possible. Inevitably, this can lead to debate and disagreement before a solution is found.
Psychological safety creates a culture in which people know how to have healthy and productive conflict, rather than shying away from disagreements. As such, it helps diverse teams feel empowered to express their individual experiences and ideas, leading to a better outcome overall.
Cohesion in a diverse group
It’s an uncomfortable truth that humans feel a natural bias towards people ‘like them’. In a business environment, that bias could make someone overlook the value and talent of people with whom they don’t feel an affinity.
One of the strengths of psychological safety is that it helps create a sense of group cohesion. Everyone can share their full selves, and by doing that find areas of commonality with other team members. Ultimately, everyone is ‘like’ everyone else in one important way – they’re a member of the same team.
That’s the real power of psychological safety in diverse teams. Once everyone knows they can trust each other and communicate well, the fact that they’re all different becomes an asset.