Psychological Safety, Diversity, Inclusion, and Politics.
Psychological safety, or at least the creation of a psychological safety culture, is an inherently values-driven endeavour. Culture itself is the manifestation of the behaviours of team members; behaviours driven by their beliefs and values.
When we’re building an environment of psychological safety, everyone needs to feel included – that they’re safe to be on the team, safe to be their true selves, and safe in the knowledge that others on the team will not reject them on the basis of their differences.
Those differences may include ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, social background, ability, or any other of the myriad ways in which we’re all different. This is why it’s so important, when building a psychologically safe team, to define the team’s values and behaviours early on – also known as a social contract or team charter – so that this inclusion is made explicit.
Research has shown that psychological safety moderates the relationship between team diversity and team innovation and performance by making it easier for teams to leverage the benefits of diversity through more open conversations and more respectful, engaged interactions. (Caruso and Woolley, 2008, in Edmondson and Lei, 2014.)
Personal and political beliefs
The challenge, however, is when personal or political beliefs of team members are opposed to the core team tenet of inclusivity. The team’s belief in inclusivity must be paramount. If anyone, due to the colour of their skin, their gender or any other characteristic is rejected by others on the team, the psychological safety of them, and the whole team will suffer, and performance will suffer too. This extends to beliefs and opinions on everything from equal rights to economics.
A common fear amongst diverse groups is not knowing what words to use – whether it’s what pronoun to use, or whether to use the word “gay” or “homosexual”, for example. One of the powers of psychological safety is providing the safety to ask those questions – not only are people less afraid of using the “wrong” word, but they’re also safer to ask which word to use. Even more, people are also safe to correct other team members when a different word is more appropriate. Psychological safety has this wonderful feedback loop in this respect.
This is exactly one of the reasons the decision at Basecamp to ban discussion of politics was such a shortsighted move.
Therefore, if someone on the team holds beliefs that conflict with that core tenet of inclusivity, there is a conflict, and it must be resolved by the team.
Think about a highly diverse, highly performing team that consists of people from different social backgrounds, different ethnicities, languages, genders and sexualities. The potential of this team is huge, due to the wide range of perspectives and knowledge that these differences confer.
If someone on that team possesses a belief (for example) that gay people should not be parents, or that trans people may not identify as the gender they feel they are, and expresses that belief within the team, trans members of that team will feel they can no longer be their true selves, offer their ideas or admit mistakes, and their psychological safety will suffer massively.
As a result, the cohesion of the team suffers, and the core tent of inclusivity is broken.
In some cases, the challenge will be how to address those views that espouse intolerance. We don’t want to shut down discussion, but equally no one should be expected to deal with situations where their own identity or human rights are being “debated”. In these cases, leaders may need to to take people to one side and have a private discussion to ensure that the team don’t end up in a place where they’re “debating” someone’s very existence or identity.
The Paradox of Tolerance
This reflects Karl Popper’s “Paradox of Tolerance” – in order for a tolerant group (or society) to succeed, it must be tolerant of everything except intolerance.
The lesson is that, far from silencing political discourse in organisations, the only way to achieve true psychological safety, inclusion, and performance, is to openly discuss our beliefs, our unique perspectives, and deal with conflict in the open, with deep empathy for others.
Where we discover attitudes and beliefs that espouse intolerance (and this is where it gets difficult, because many intolerant belief systems do not consider themselves to be intolerant), we must address them, not ban or restrict the discussion.
Inclusion and Empathy
In any team, indeed any organisation or society, inclusion is crucial. We must never reject others for being different, and we must make constant effort to deeply empathise with the life experiences and perspectives of others in the group. This will often mean challenging our own beliefs and our own perceptions, and it is via this behaviour that true inclusion manifests, where everyone is welcome, everyone feels free to be their true selves, and we all enjoy psychological safety.
“The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.”Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman.
Ok, but what do I do?
It is the leader’s job to ensure that the team values and culture are held in the highest regard, and that everyone on the team feels safe. That doesn’t mean safe to exclude others, however.
Psychological safety does not include the safety to do whatever you want – indeed, it’s the opposite: it means working hard to ensure that your actions and your speech help to ensure a safe environment for others.
Psychological Safety isn’t an umbrella that provides shelter to all. It provides shelter to those who provide shelter.
As a leader, if you have someone on your team whose behaviours, language, or even beliefs harm others on the team, do talk to them, but it’s not your job to provide an environment that feels sympathetic to certain mindsets (such as racism or homophobia). It’s the exact opposite. Talk to them about how their beliefs, their language and/or behaviour might make others on the team feel. Use phrases such as “When you say that you don’t think gay people should be able to adopt children, how do you think that makes [team member who is gay] feel about being on this team?“
As is so often the case, trying to do two things at the same time will likely lead to two things done badly. Trying to educate folks can lead to situations where marginalised folks are continually exposed to prejudice and bias through repeatedly having to “teach” others why their behaviours and actions cause harm.
As a leader, you cannot, and should not try to actively change someone else’s mind. You can provide an environment that supports and encourages their understanding.
It’s your job to create an environment where the culture and your team values are so obvious that you see and feel them when you walk in the door. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a great example of how a set of shared values can unite people and create a shared foundation of values and behaviours, so we can understand and work with each other despite cultural and language differences.
Your team culture and values should be saturated so deeply, and embedded in such a way that the default response to any situation is to make a choice that is aligned with those inclusive values. Psychological safety can only truly exist in an inclusive culture, and a truly inclusive culture requires the psychological safety to speak up against non-inclusive behaviour and speech.
Download the Psychological Safety Action Pack to discover how to measure, build and maintain psychological safety in your teams.