CareerTopic #2: Empathizing With Your Employees: Creating a Culture of (Psychologically Safe) DEI Conversations

October 7, 20200
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Several years ago, I was in a talent strategy meeting with a small team. We convened to discuss how to increase the number and success rates of women and people of color in our most critical roles. The team was well-balanced. We had a few white male executives, a couple HR folks, and a few handpicked leaders of color.

At the time, I thought this meeting would be like all the others. We would race through a bunch of agenda items, assign action items, and plan our next meeting. Nobody had the space to say what they were really thinking. We just executed.

But this meeting was different. And the person that made this meeting different was a black woman executive. Let’s call her Shondra.

Shondra was having a rough day. While she welcomed the impact she was making by being on the diversity and inclusion talent task force, as the highest ranking black engineer at the company, Shondra was constantly being tapped to participate on several other committees across the organization. It was definitely a lot.

When the time came to accept and recite action items, Shondra dissented. She couldn’t physically or mentally take on another task. It just wasn’t possible. When we ran through the items, a distressed Shondra spoke up:

“I sincerely hope we are in a safe space but I can’t take on any additional tasks. You see, I am asked to do everything and I feel like I’m being pushed to the edge. In addition to this task force, I’m on five others, and this is on top of leading my team through a re-org. I want to help as I know this initiative is important to me and the company but, unless something changes, I don’t have the bandwidth to take more on.”

The room became silent. I cringed in discomfort not knowing what was coming next.

Even more surprising, one of the most senior executives and most powerful people in the room, then responded.

“Shondra, I’m really sorry to hear this. I had no idea that you were this over-extended. How can I help with clearing up your calendar? And, I would like to hear more. Perhaps we can have a broader discussion about your capacity.”

This is what psychological safety looks like and this is the most memorable example of it that I have seen in my career. Psychological safety is so rare to view or experience in the workplace — so this example has stuck with me a long time. I wasn’t aware that this was a psychologically safe team, but many times, we don’t know until we experience it in action.

I later learned that Shondra had a discussion with her boss, the head of product, before the meeting and he encouraged her to openly discuss her burnout. Shondra was lucky. She experienced more psychological safety than the average underrepresented executive, both within her team and on the task force. Her leadership listened, without resistance or retaliation, and committed to identifying immediate solutions to her frustrations.

In these times, countless organizations are touting their commitment to DEI but, at the same time, psychological safety is lacking in the trenches. As Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business Review (HBR) Leadership and Management professor and researcher simply put it, a climate with psychological safety is one in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves. 

Without psychological safety, employees won’t discuss the real issues brewing below the surface, such as:

  • Issues at home affecting their work performance
  • Important topics related to race
  • Unhealthy power dynamics
  • Unfair policies and practices

You can’t have vulnerable DEI conversations without psychological safety.

So, how can you create a psychologically safe space where employees can feel comfortable having DEI-related conversations? Here are three tactics to get started (all are focused on structures and systems):

1) Focus on intact teams, not individuals. As stated in the paper Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams by Amy Edmondson, one of the first researchers to write about psychological safety:

Perceptions of psychological safety, like other such beliefs, should converge in a team, both because team members are subject to the same set of structural influences and because these perceptions develop out of salient shared experiences. For example, most members of a team will conclude that making a mistake does not lead to rejection when they have had team experiences in which appreciation and interest are expressed in response to discussion of their own and others’ mistakes.

Psychological safety is not an individual aspiration, mainly because the team creates and reinforces psychologically-safe climates. When you tackle DEI from the team level, success becomes much more viable.

With this concept in mind, many of your psychologically safe, DEI efforts should focus on how to safely apply DEI learning and actions to teams. For example, if you bring in DEI trainers or start new initiatives, ask leaders and employees to first apply action items within their teams. Continue to follow-up, assess safety, and hold leaders accountable for safe environments.

2) Incentivize collaboration over competition. I’m always surprised to see how many organizations still unilaterally emphasize individual success over team success. For example, many performance management systems still place little emphasis on supporting teammates and helping them along. Rewards systems still skew towards measuring and rewarding individual success.

DEI will not work if organizations don’t positively reinforce inclusive behaviors within teams. Some ways that you can reinforce those inclusive behaviors include incorporating DEI criteria into existing rewards programs and within organizational goals.

3) Schedule listening sessions. The next time you are contemplating scheduling a DEI training workshop, consider organizing a listening session instead. Organizations have been busy all summer scheduling training sessions for employees. Trust me, I know because I have been very busy.

What is a listening session? Listening sessions are forums that companies create to provide a non-judgmental space to discuss challenging issues in the world. The goal isn’t to develop solutions, it’s to empathize with others that may be experiencing hardships. When facilitated well, listening sessions can be invaluable to an organization. They can be cathartic to employees experiencing hardships and educational for those who are not. You can facilitate a listening session on topics ranging from Black Lives Matter to COVID-19. The key is to intentionally set ground rules, practice active listening, and to clearly state the purpose up front.

Building inclusive cultures takes time but starting with these three steps will get you well on your way. Remember to focus on teams and to develop other structures and systems that reinforce the desired behaviors you are trying to create.

If you are reading and applying tips provided in my Beyond Training series, I would like to hear how it’s going. You can email me at latonya@latonyawilkins.com.

Stay tuned for Topic #3 – Full Speed Ahead?: Balancing DEI Action with Advocacy

If you are reading and applying tips provided in my Beyond Training series, I would like to hear about your experiences. You can email me at latonya@latonyawilkins.com.

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LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.

LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.

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