November 14, 2023 – Many business leaders are referring to the past year as “The Great DEI Resignation” as hordes of chief diversity officers and DEI leaders are quitting their roles or being pushed out – a result of insufficient buy in from colleagues and other leaders, or budget constraints. As a result, it is important to reassess the approach companies are taking to DEI and, more importantly, consider how they plan to build DEI efforts with a foundation of psychological safety. At its core, psychological safety refers to an environment where individuals feel safe to express their opinions and ideas without fear of negative consequences such as ridicule or punishment, and instead create an environment that encourages open communication, risk-taking, growth and learning from mistakes and setbacks. When employees feel psychologically safe at work, they are more likely to contribute their unique perspectives and experiences. This sense of safety fosters creativity, innovation, and ultimately leads to better decision-making processes.
“When talking about diversity, something that often gets missed is being inclusive of it,” said Saul Gomez, director of IDEA at TI Verbatim Consulting. “If we’re not being inclusive of our diversity, then how are we leveraging it? How are we capitalizing on it? It’s worth asking, ‘Are we maximizing what our talent pool has to offer?’ At the end of the day, people want to feel included… and in order to truly leverage the diverse talent that organizations have, individuals need to feel included, seen, heard, and valued.”
When people feel safe being themselves at work—regardless of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of their identity—they are more likely to thrive professionally and propose innovative and creative ideas that can benefit the organization. Furthermore, they are more likely to be open to carrying out broader DEI initiatives set forth by the organization. A viable DEI strategy can be traced back to the first three elements of psychological safety: inclusivity, curiosity, and trust. When leveraged, they can work to build a culture in which a sense of belonging and respect for people’s differences is deeply integrated into an organization, which allows everything else to follow.
Saul Gomez is director of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility at TI Verbatim Consulting. He is a Navy combat veteran experienced in organizational culture and executive-level briefing. Mr. Gomez has led diversity and inclusion initiatives for over 59,000 personnel and is highly experienced in operationalizing diversity, equity and inclusion. He is a human-centered design facilitator, certified mediator, coach, and expert in agile practices implementation.
“It’s really the ability to function within a team or workplace environment without feeling like you’re going to be ridiculed or much less retaliated against, especially when pushing back or challenging the status quo,” said Mr. Gomez. “Even to the point where the contributions that people make are seen, heard and valued, no matter how out of the box thinking the contributions might be.”
Sustaining DEI in the Workplace
As companies have continued to find that the DEI goals set forth to achieve have failed to come to fruition, it is important to leverage the foundation that psychological safety provides in order to restart the momentum. Then, to sustain these efforts, the final two pillars of psychological safety come into place: collaboration and resilience.
“You have to ask, do people at this organization feel valued and supported? Do they feel like they have the latitude and autonomy to explore, ideate, innovate, be creative and break a couple eggs to make an omelet?” asked Mr. Gomez. “These are important questions in probing beyond DEI as a check in the box, and instead, leveraging psychological safety to collaborate, learn and grow from mistakes and setbacks, and in turn, build resilience across the organization.”
“More importantly, psychological safety is foundational to the success of a DEI strategy, and it starts at the top,” Mr. Gomez said. “Leaders and managers, first and foremost, need to be keenly aware of and familiar with what psychological safety is – what it looks like, what it sounds like, and what it feels like. That way, they’re able to model the behaviors and practices that help cultivate and sustain it throughout the organization.”
Clearly defined expectations around respectful communication, including healthy levels of dissent, active listening, and empathy are important however, in order to measure progress, a baseline psychological safety assessment helps to understand where an organization stands. It serves as a data-driven measure to maintain or improve upon, according to Mr. Gomez. From there it is worth asking, “Are our attrition levels being reduced? Are we able to retain people? Are we seeing lower levels of turnover? Do we have a better sense of collegiality and better sense of belonging?”
Mr. Gomez explains that asking these questions helps everyone get more in tune with what they can do on a personal level to promote this culture of belonging.
6 Steps for Creating an Inclusive Workplace Culture
The culture around us influences everything we do. On a global scale, it influences the food we eat, the languages we speak, and the social norms that are expected. On a smaller scale, the culture of a company can speak volumes to its mission, values, and ideals. Even though culture is all around us, even at work, it is likely defined by different people differently. On the most basic level, Forbes defines workplace culture as: “The shared values, belief systems, attitudes, and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share.”
With measurement also comes more qualifiable ways of tracking this progress. Leaders can leverage informal means of gauging progress such as random check-ins with entry level people to get a sense for their pain points, or brown-bag lunches with leadership. Additionally, ‘lunch and learns’ encourage collaboration between teams; collectively, this helps reinforce to the broader organization, that the leadership team is bought into a culture that values psychological safety, and by extension, operationalizing DEI.
While TI Verbatim believes that psychological safety is fundamental to a successful DEI strategy, implementing it is not without its challenges. One of the biggest Mr. Gomez sees, is mindsets and fear-based performance. “Often times, employees are doing enough so they don’t get fired, or just enough to do their jobs, but not enough to stand out,” he said.
“Instead, when psychological safety is integrated into the culture of an organization, people will feel empowered to think creatively and innovate, knowing they will be supported for taking an out of the box approach,” he said. “It’s about understanding that the different perspectives that people bring to the table are insightful and valuable – and that putting all that together positively impacts the organization.”
A Culture of Belonging Through Psychological Safety
TIVC’s approach to DEI is premised on psychological safety, according to Mr. Gomez. Psychological safety is essential to building a culture of belonging where people feel seen, valued, and respected.
“But this isn’t just good for the wellbeing of individuals – there are financial benefits for companies as well,” he said. “When organizations are truly inclusive of their diversity, they benefit from a wider market reach, and with a wider market reach, additional revenue follows, which means the organization is thriving and is able to do more for its people in. By fostering an environment where individuals feel included and safe to express themselves authentically, ask questions without fear, collaborate openly, and persevere through challenges, we can create workplaces that not only celebrate and leverage their diversity, but also harness its full potential to positively impact the bottom line.”
Related: Shaping a Culture of Inclusion
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor; Lily Fauver, Senior Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media