Psychological safety is critical if you want to reap the benefits of diversity

by Bee Heller
December 1, 2017

Imagine this scenario… your organisation has been talking about the importance of diversity in the workforce for a long time. And it’s done a great job of improving the numbers – you’re hiring people from more diverse backgrounds and there’s more women in senior leadership roles. Executives are pleased – the organisation is looking much more diverse on paper and they’ve been told that diversity is good for innovation so this spells good news for the future success of the organisation.

However, before you start celebrating the great leaps forward made by your organisation it’s worth investigating the situation a little further… have you created a mosaic or a water-colour organisation? Diversity in a mosaic organisation looks like a beautiful picture from a distance, but get up close and what you really notice is the putty separating the different tiles.

How does this happen…?

Yes, diversity supports the introduction of different perspectives and the processing of information in different ways. Teams with more diversity have also been shown to have more discussion, to shape ideas into new solutions and to be better at detecting errors and solving problems. But there’s a threat… increasing diversity can also cause subgroups to form around shared social identities.

People will naturally gravitate towards others like them, forming cohesive homogenous groups. The challenge with cohesive groups is almost the inverse of the promise of diversity – cohesiveness can reduce people’s willingness to disagree and challenge others’ views. It can lead to groupthink, when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration in the quality of “mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgement”.

For diversity to really pay dividends, what you need is to create a water-colour not a mosaic of separate tribes. How do you do this…?

Every employee belongs to multiple teams and tribes within an organisation. Increasing diversity can create more tribes as people seek out groups like them. When subgroups start to form it can prevent people from sharing their expertise and ideas between these subgroups or from isolated minority individuals to the rest. The extent to which people display their full talents and capabilities depends on their perception of their interpersonal safety. Psychological safety within and across teams and the wider organisation is critical if an organisation wants to reap the benefits of diversity. Hiring for diversity is not enough.

The challenge for leaders is to find ways of creating an inclusive culture where within teams minorities feel both accepted and valued and across the wider organisation diversity is celebrated. One common error leaders make is to emphasise the things that are shared across the organisation, if this captures the defining characteristics or norms of the majority it can actually make minority members and groups feel even more isolated. Instead leaders should be explicit in making minorities aware (along with everyone else) that they are not only accepted but that their ideas and contribution is invited. One of the simplest things to do is publicly recognise the value of diversity in every conversation. Remind people of the research shared at the beginning of this article. The more diversity is celebrated for its positive contribution to the functioning of a team and an organisation the more you’ll establish a psychologically safe environment that really will reap the promised benefits.

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