Don't Invest Another Dollar In DEI Until You Have Strong Psychological Safety

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Michelle Bogan is the Founder and CEO of Equity At Work, known for creating innovative solutions for even the most complex DEI challenges.

Quite often, when organizations are interested in doing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, they jump right into establishing employee resource groups (ERGs), recruiting at new schools and establishing a calendar of observances for milestones like Juneteenth and Women’s History Month.

These are all good things to do—but if your foundational culture isn’t in a great place, they can actually cause new issues to bubble to the top. If those issues are significant or leadership is not prepared to address them, DEI work can get blamed, and the work can get abandoned.

The place to begin is taking a hard look at your culture and determining if psychological safety is well established and felt consistently across functions, levels and locations.

Psychological Safety

Team psychological safety, coined by researcher and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, is something that happens at a team level and is a shared belief held by team members that it is okay to speak up, ask questions, challenge ideas and admit to mistakes or even failures without fear of retribution. Failures are viewed as coaching and learning opportunities; all ideas are viewed as worthy of consideration, and questions identify opportunities to explain or even think decisions through more effectively.

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Having psychological safety in place opens the door to great innovation and risk management and provides opportunities for employees at all levels to contribute and shine. It is team-specific, so you can have great psychological safety within one team and not in another, all within the same organization. The consistency across teams is where the impact really comes in.

When people feel psychologically safe, they feel they can trust each other. They feel their boss and their team have their back; they feel they will be valued for doing the right thing, and they feel they and others on their team are treated fairly. You can see there are a lot of “feels” here—it is absolutely a sentiment, which is what makes it hard and so important to prioritize.

Opportunities To Create Psychological Safety

The good news is that psychological safety is engendered by small, day-to-day actions, so you have endless opportunities to create this sentiment and embed it into how your teams work together. Here are some examples of steps you can take to create psychological safety.

• Set clear, consistent expectations upfront.

• Establish integrity and honesty as core values.

• Establish, document and communicate team norms.

• Ensure leaders and peers demonstrate active listening.

• Always make the “why” of what you’re asking people to do clear.

• Demonstrate that it is okay to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.”

• Demonstrate that it is okay to say, “I have another idea.”

• Recognize and reward positive behavior.

• Enforce a zero-tolerance policy for disrespectful, harmful, harassing or discriminating behavior.

• Demonstrate that mistakes are learning opportunities that are coached.

• Consistently communicate that you are all in this together.

DEI work done well celebrates diversity of background, experience, perspective and ideas and makes every employee feel seen, heard and valued for who they are, enabling them to show up as their full, authentic selves every day. If you try to layer DEI work on top of a culture that does not have psychological safety or only has it in pockets of the organization, you create cracks in the culture foundation. Until these cracks are addressed, you will not be able to maintain or advance your DEI work effectively.

Creating A Competency Framework

So how do you determine if you have a psychologically safe organization? Creating a competency framework for the behaviors you want role-modeled by leaders is a great starting place. Here is one example of competencies that an organization determines are most important for them.

• A culture of learning and coaching is encouraged.

• People are open to discussion of issues and problems.

• Differences are supported and valued.

• Smart risk-taking is encouraged.

• Employees are encouraged to ask for help.

• Intentional obstruction of other employees’ work or efforts is not allowed.

• Everyone’s unique talents and skills are valued.

Identifying Specific Behaviors

Once you’ve established these competencies, you can define the specific behaviors you want leaders to exhibit. Taking the “culture of learning and coaching” example from above, the behaviors these leaders need to show are:

• They include the “why” in all communications.

• Leaders do not hold employees’ mistakes against them.

• Leaders provide coaching-driven feedback.

• Leaders role model situational humility.

From here, the leadership team can determine how well it is doing this today, what their opportunities are and what training, communications and metrics need to be put in place to support and reward the behavior.

And remember, this is about how the organization feels, not just what the leaders are doing or think they are demonstrating. The very important next step is to establish a process to gather feedback from teams on how well their team is functioning against these expectations. That can come through confidential surveys, focus groups, one-on-one meetings and reviewing employee relations reports. If the sentiment doesn’t extend across the team consistently, you know you have work to do.

Once you’ve got psychological safety well in place, be sure to consistently nurture and monitor it. And when it is part of your company’s DNA, you can move forward with your DEI work and be set up to achieve the impact you desire.


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