How psychological safety is a haven against racism

There is no place for racism, prejudice or hatred in the world – let alone the business world. It is against all the principles of emotional and mental wellbeing that I have tried to uphold in my research and work.

June 11, 2020 4 mins read

Dear Friends,

This is a time of hurt, pain and frustration. I wanted to take a moment to send a simple message to all of you — my colleagues, clients and friends that I have come to love dearly. I stand with you.

Let me be clear: there is no place for racism, prejudice or hatred in the world — let alone the business world. It is against all the principles of emotional and mental wellbeing that I have tried to uphold in my research and work.

I created Friday Pulse to focus my effort on employee wellbeing. If you’re reading this, you’re probably concerned about the wellbeing of your people. You want to make sure your people are safe and well. This means making sure your workplace is a place of physical refuge and psychological safety. In short, you try to make the room as safe as possible. Whilst this can be done by having inclusive recruiting policies, racial issues and experiences need to be discussed and shared to encourage empathy and build stronger emotional bonds between team members.

Your colleagues may look ok, but they’re not

In the UK, 14% of the working-age population come from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. This number is expected to rise to 20% by 2030. That means that there’s a good chance that you may have colleagues that are currently dealing with intense emotions — long-lasting hurt, trauma, rage, sadness — and are doing their best to hold it in and keep the workplace “professional”.

When traumatizing events and police brutality are captured on camera, the psychological impact on employees inevitably filters down to the workplace. When this happens, how organizations respond can significantly affect how employees feel. Workplaces can become a place of psychological safety or another place that threatens racial identity.

Moving forward with compassionate curiosity and professional empathy

To create safe places for our colleagues, we must express compassionate curiosity to understand different views. When we do this, we exercise professional empathy in the way we ask questions, show vulnerability and listen to our colleagues.

Sharing vulnerability (especially as a leader)

It’s not easy for leaders to appear vulnerable. They have a lot to lose — respect of the team or meaningful relationships. As a leader, you might be afraid of saying the wrong thing, and that might keep you silent. Silence is not the answer.

I must admit I struggle with knowing how much my own privileged upbringing and experiences have shaped my world views. However, I do try and educate myself and actively listen to a diversity of voices even if it makes me feel uncomfortable. I encourage you to do the same. Having conversations in your workplace about race and what is going on the world is messy, but having your team hold in their fears and emotions can be far worse.

Ask better deepening questions

When we don’t accept the surface answer of “I’m fine,” we’re able to scratch at the truth of how people are really feeling. Ask follow-up questions that are open and empathetic to understand new viewpoints. There’s a lot of vulnerability here for your team members, and a compassionate tone will help people open up. It’s an incredible moment that can help to develop stronger emotional bonds between team members.

A note of warning here — sometimes team members aren’t ready to talk, and that’s fine. If they see how well you treat those that do share how they’re feeling, then there may come a day when they will speak up as well.

Listen effectively

We all have to process the severity of what has happened recently. Combined with COVID-19, the unrest is proving to be a defining moment. An essential part of processing is listening to our teams and letting them share their experiences. Leaders need to make sure that they switch into a learning mode rather than a telling/teaching mode as employees speak. It’s a vulnerable moment but can ultimately bring our teams closer together.

Your company and the future of racial inequality

Last weekend, protests in the UK toppled a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol — a slave trader who operated out of the port. For years, many people petitioned to remove his statute since it represented an ugly part of history. But there was no action. The crowd took it upon themselves to pull down the statue and toss it into the river, doing in moments what years of petitioning had failed to do. Since then, there have been further calls for statues of slave traders across the UK to be removed.

This is what happens when you take too long to act on well-meaning policies and are bogged in bureaucracy. Forward-thinking leaders would have removed the statues earlier.

Now is the time to get ahead of the curve of history. The workplace is a natural meeting place of people of disparate backgrounds and can, absolutely, be part of the healing process. Harvard Business Review listed some initiatives for companies to bring equality to the workplaces:

  • Commit to anti-racism policies and racial equity training
  • Commit to pay equity and a living wage
  • Commit to parental leave, health care coverage and sick leave

These are topics that are issues which will not go away and will continue to resurface until they are addressed. Better to address them now, than be forced to act in a chaotic way.

Racism is a problem for everyone because it destroys communities. It undermines wellbeing. If one group’s wellbeing is dependent on putting another group down, then there are no winners. With the right amount of compassion, understanding and action, we can make the workplace a safe place for everyone.