Last year's inclusion week coincided with the start of my learning journey in Organisational Psychology. In parallel, I also got involved in more initiatives in support of diversity and inclusion as part of my job and through cross-industry activities. All of this has brought me a number of fresh perspectives on what inclusion means, how best to support it, and opened my eyes to to new views and ideas, some of which I would like to share here.
At some point this year, it felt, to me at least, like psychological safety was talked about everywhere. In lectures, conferences, working groups; in the context of mental health, wellbeing, change management, inclusion, and of course in relation to the pandemic. And for once, significant buzz surrounding a concept did not put me off, quite the opposite, seeing how critical and powerful this one can be.
What is psychological safety? Amy Edmondson, a Professor at Harvard Business School, is probably the best known scholar on the subject, about which she has been conducting research and writing since the 1990s. In one of her most recent articles, she defines it as "the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation". In environments where psychological safety is lacking, people will refrain from sharing ideas, asking questions, or admitting mistakes for fear of consequences. They will also be unwilling to take risks and challenge the status quo; for that reason, psychological safety has often been referenced as an enabler for creativity, innovation and performance, which is nicely summed up by the following phrase I heard quoted at a conference:
"No one comes up with great ideas while being chased by a tiger"
So how does this relate to inclusion? Quite significantly. Building an environment where people feel free to speak up without fear of being judged is a pre-requisite to develop an inclusive culture. For some, sharing some aspects of their lives, such as coming out for an LGBTQ+ person, or talking about a mental health condition, can be the most daunting and difficult step to take in opening up to others. Psychological safety will help encourage people to talk and share with others, mitigating - as some of it will always be there - some of the fear and nervousness they will experience in doing so. For others, it will be the ability to share their experience and call out behaviours making them feel othered. For all, going beyond the idea of speaking up, it is the knowledge that a psychologically safe environment is more likely to be open to differences in personalities, preferences and characteristics, in the way that it is open to differences in opinions, without judgement.
Colonialism has been a source of controversy for a long time, and much as happened in recent years with younger generations looking back through history with an appreciation of the suffering, segregation and violence that was caused. It has often materialised through controversies around the presence of statues of key figures of colonialism, leading to their removal in some cases, or other references to key figures, often connected to the slave trade, countered by criticism of what has been labelled the "cancel culture".
Over the past year, I have come across colonialism through a different lens, as part of my organisational psychology studies. This opened my eyes to another legacy of colonialism, which is the impact it has had on the very way we, as a society, have built a view of what we consider to be knowledge, and set a number of standards in many fields, claiming for them to be universal, when only white Western people (often male) were ever involved in their development. What this means is that in many respects, the way we envisage the world around us, and expect others to do so comes from that very same perspective, lacking views and representation of how indigenous populations, or simply other non-Western cultures, approach certain concepts.
I realise that this is all quite abstract, and difficult to turn into actions in support of inclusion. What it comes down to however, is to appreciate that there are many different ways to view a situation, a piece of information, or a concept, even if there only seems to be one obvious true version to some of us; ignoring this only perpetuates a narrow view of the world, and we therefore need to give a voice and listen to these different perspectives, as far as they may initially feel from our own reality. Here is an African proverb mentioned in one of our lectures, which I find sums this up effectively:
Until the lions learn to write, history will always glorify the hunters
Intersectionality and systems of oppression
A few months ago, I posted the model below, which I had put together as a result of reading papers and reflecting on intersectionality in the context of one of our lectures. This was an attempt at picturing what intersectionality was about, taking it back to its roots and focus on systems of oppression, away from it being just a collection of individual characteristics.
Of course, I do not pretend that this visual representation isn't without its flaws, and on the one hand oversimplifying or systematising a concept which is multifaceted and complex, and on the other perhaps diluting its core origins which focused on gender and race, through the struggle of black females in America.
One of the key features of this model however, and takeaway from the papers I read, is the balance between marginalised and privileged groups. Until recently, I'll admit that in my head the absence of a marginalised characteristic in someone was something neutral, meaning that they wouldn't suffer from discrimination or oppression based on that characteristic. What I now appreciate better, is that the simple fact of showing certain characteristics considered as "the norm" puts people in a position of privilege. And this is where I would make a connection with the concept of allyship, in other words the power that people in situations of privilege have to give a voice and support those in marginalised groups. Allies have probably developed the most in support of the LGBTQ+ community, and this has yielded some great benefits, and allyship can be equally powerful for all marginalised groups, or individuals marginalised due to their intersectional identities - being an ally shouldn't be exclusive to supporting one specific group!
Responsible education and representation
A final reflection on things I have learned this year concerns the need to be sensitive in how one wishes to try and support inclusion. Many now do appreciate the need to give a voice to those being underrepresented, as well as the need to educate those outside of these underrepresented groups. That said, good intentions can have unintended consequences.
This was brought to my attention by a young member of staff who became aware of a call for support I had shared, looking for graduates from Black heritage to take part in focus groups, in aide of a research piece, external to my company. In my head, this was all good news; research being conducted on employability, experience and challenges of graduates from Black heritage, people being listened to, and insights to be gathered for other people and organisations' benefit.
The challenge came to me via an email which aimed to bring a few things to my attention, including:
The regular requests that people from minority groups get to share their experiences, and expectations that they are willing to do this for free, as giving them a voice is assumed to be a favour
The possible trauma that repeatedly sharing - and reliving - experience can cause for certain people based on their background and experience of oppression
A consideration for the lens through which the research is being conducted (i.e., would a white person adequately appreciate and therefore relay the complexity and richness of the data they are receiving?)
The fact that this being completely voluntary didn't mean that individuals from the minority group wouldn't feel obliged to take part, or feel a certain implicit pressure to do so
My first read of this email got me immediately into defensive mode, because, of course, I only had good and inclusive intentions (and I must admit, not without some embarrassment with hindsight, that I pulled the gay / clinically depressed card to help validate my claim..), and I managed to find factors mitigating all the points being made. I still knew there was more to it, and to the credit of this colleague who continued to present their arguments passionately, a further few emails were exchanged, as well as a phone conversation, to continue to exchange thoughts and information on the challenges we were discussing. And what might have felt confrontational at first, became constructive and educational. It also happened right when my studies were taking me into very critical considerations around diversity, all adding up to significantly developing my approach to building inclusion, in ways that aim to avoid tokenism, one-sided assumptions, and implicit power dynamics.
So what to make of all of this? I will try and bring out a few points to take away:
Your actions and reactions towards different opinions, mistakes, and different styles will give out signals about how psychologically safe you are making your environment. Psychological safety should be the first step to help people feel included and belonging
People's background and history help shape their frames of references and standards; we need to be curious to try and understand these different views of the world
Being indifferent to difference isn't enough. Equity can only be achieved if those with privileges use these to actively support those who are marginalised
Educating others shouldn't be the burden of underrepresented groups alone, and we should all help develop the right systems to fairly share information and experience.
Here we are, my latest thoughts taking into consideration lessons, events and encounters from the past 12 months, leaving me to look forward to learning and experiencing more in the 12 months to come.
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