How to create psychologically safe workplaces for colleagues from diverse ethnic groups

Written by Jermaine Haughton Tuesday 13 October 2020
The input of people from diverse ethnic groups is critical for establishing an inclusive work environment
Black colleagues talking at work

Current debates about racial justice and equity in the UK workplace have exposed the difficulties employers are facing when identifying, discussing and implementing the structural changes necessary to support Black people and people from diverse ethnic groups.

Next week CMI Race will publish new practical guidance that will equip managers with the tools to address racial inequality and discuss race at work with confidence – adding to Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England’s recent recommendations on building anti-racist workplaces.

Addressing the mental health impact of racial inequalities at work is a key factor for nurturing staff from diverse ethnic groups, with lead insights provided by Dr Jummy Okoya FCMI, a wellbeing psychologist and expert on organisational and leadership development, wellness and resilience.

Protecting the psychological wellbeing of groups that face racism

The fear of isolation and exclusion leads some people from diverse ethnic groups to hide their true selves at work, an emotionally draining behaviour that inevitably inhibits their performance and morale.

Dr Okoya advises managers to build a ‘psychological safety’ net for staff that welcomes and rewards people for being different – including their personality, backgrounds, and ideas.

The continual challenge for managers is to dispel an organisational team culture where employees know they will be blamed for mistakes, putting their career progress at threat.

“When employees are fully themselves at work without having to ‘code switch’ or wear a mask to pretend to be somebody else they are fully able to access their brain capacity, their creative juices are unleashed and sustainable high performance is achieved. It is mentally and emotionally draining to work in an environment where there are many exclusionary practices.”

She adds: “If you find yourself in a work environment where you feel a sense of belonging in your team, feel connected and valued as other team members, you are likely to give a higher level of discretionary efforts, experience a high level of job satisfaction and are more likely to stay with your employer.”

For Google, psychological safety is a competitive advantage. A two-year study found psychological safety to be the most important factor in the success of Google’s high-performing teams.

Talented employees take risks, challenge their superiors, and share unconventional opinions, knowing they will not be punished for making mistakes, the research found.

Psychological safety requires leaders to be humble

In practice, psychological safety can be demonstrated in two fundamental ways – through leadership behaviour and structural changes, Dr Okoya identified.

Leaders stuck in outdated management styles that are not empathetic or open to employee critique threaten inclusivity from forming. With a dose of humility, Dr Okoya says managers should instead be willing to share their own fallibility for mistakes. Great leaders are curious to understand where they went wrong and seek to solve the mistake or misunderstanding.

Structurally, hierarchy and inflexible procedures can discourage people from being spontaneous and creative. Dr Okoya recommends redesigning meetings to enable people who face racism to voice their work ideas, candid feedback and lived experiences – without fear of consequences.

“Practise showing gratitude at the start of monthly team meetings. Each project leader can share with the whole department something positive about a team member or initiative they have launched in their team, or simply praise a team member who has gone the extra mile to support another colleague. The focus here is to make sure to include diverse members and not just promote certain groups of people.”

But psychological safety is not just a one-on-one trust-building exercise with individuals. According to Dr Okoya, it requires the amplification of the voices of people from diverse ethnic groups among the whole team. “Psychological safety is connected to vicarious learning, learning in front of others and failing along the way.”

Inclusivity is a vital moral and business investment

The most successful companies for inclusivity focus on doing the right thing, rather than approaching diversity as an exercise that’s simply ‘good for business,’ claims Dr Okoya.

Inclusivity should be interwoven into the core organisational values and long-term business strategies, including investing in the career progression of employees from diverse ethnic groups.

“Organisations should invest resources in creating sponsorship programmes to accelerate the progress of Black people and those from diverse ethnic groups. Assign more experienced colleagues to act as sponsors to guide them as they learn the ropes. Act as an advocate who champions the career progress of the individual assigned.”

Dr Jummy Okoya's five essential steps for creating psychological safety in your business

1. Break the “Golden Rule” – Treat people as they would like to be treated, not as you would like to be treated. Ask simple questions about their experience at the organisation, what they need to boost their career progression and wellbeing and what their preferences are regarding the frequency of one-to-one meetings, and favoured communication and feedback styles.

2. Promote curiosity – Invite participation from employees for their thoughts on simple and complex issues by creating designated safe spaces for people to ask questions and challenge decisions in a supportive environment.

3. Promote inclusive leadership – During the decision-making process, actively seek input of employees with different backgrounds or expertise from your own; foster collaboration among diverse staff; facilitate constructive arguments,;give actionable feedback; and act upon the advice of diverse employees.

4. Hold leaders accountable – Tie executive and managerial bonuses to measurable work inclusion targets. Dr Okoya says this can be achieved by setting a tracking and reporting system to measure progress against the diversity and inclusion goals for each business area.

5. Value Your People – Make sure the voices of Black people and those from diverse ethnic groups are visible and elevated and institutional barriers to their sense of belonging are removed.

CMI Race will publish new practical guidance on 20th October. Part of this involved working with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England – which we wrote about in this article.

You can sign up to attend our upcoming CMI Race virtual event: Moving the Dial.

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