Five ways to build equity and psychological safety: navigating difficult conversations in the workplace

4 minute read
In today's rapidly evolving work landscape, organisations recognise the critical importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as foundational principles for success. Amy Gallo and Ruchika Tulshyan delve into the intricacies of building relationships, addressing equity and navigating difficult conversations in the pursuit of creating truly inclusive workplaces
Sian Harrington

Amy Gallo and Ruchika Tulshyan addressing members of The HR Leaders Club

HR leaders may be able to define DEI in their sleep but the ‘E’ – equity – still remains a major challenge to the majority of organisations. And this is where the truly uncomfortable conversations need to take place in business, believe Amy Gallo and Ruchika Tulshyan.

Speaking to a group of chief people officers at The HR Leaders Club, Gallo – author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) and an editor at Harvard Business Review – and Tulshyan – best-selling author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work and one of LinkedIn's Top Voices in gender equity – said the greatest work that still needs to be done is in the area of equity. But they agreed that organisations are now at an inflection point, with a real opportunity to make change.

During an intimate closed-door conversation sponsored by workforce management solutions company Matrix, Gallo and Tulshyan shared their deep expertise and insights with members of the club. The People Space has pulled out five overall themes:

  1. Understanding the meaning of equity

Diversity and inclusion are often the cornerstones of DEI efforts, focusing on representation and creating a sense of belonging. However, equity takes the conversation further by examining the historical barriers and systemic disadvantages that have perpetuated inequality in the workplace. Tulshyan emphasises that equity is not about just counting heads or making heads count but involves identifying and dismantling the barriers that have historically excluded individuals from entering the workforce or leadership positions.

As she explains: "Equity is a process that is never done. It means identifying barriers that have kept people who have been historically excluded out of the workforce and living up to their full potential." Acknowledging these barriers and confronting them with intention is crucial for organisations to build inclusive environments where all individuals can thrive.

  1. Embracing discomfort and uncomfortable conversations

Gallo reminds us that embracing discomfort is an integral part of addressing and advancing equity. She contends that, for leaders, difficult conversations surrounding equity will feel uncomfortable as they question themselves, their identities and the systems they abide by. She highlights  "that questioning is the work. It's not the numbers on the paper or the outcomes. Equity is much harder to align around. It's not clear exactly what it's going to look like at the end. And I think that's very uncomfortable in a business environment that's very focused on KPIs.”

Tulshyan notes that uncomfortable conversations challenge the prevailing notion of meritocracy and the belief that the best talent naturally rises to the top. “One of the difficult conversations is having to push back and help our leaders understand that meritocracy is a myth,” she says.

  1. The role of HR leaders in driving equity

HR leaders play a pivotal role in driving equity within organisations. They possess the power and influence to shape policies, practices and conversations that challenge existing systems. However, this task is not without its challenges. HR professionals need to navigate difficult conversations, challenge resistance to change and guide leaders in recognising and addressing systemic barriers.

Gallo notes the difficult position HR leaders often find themselves in, stating: "Oftentimes it is human nature to not want to engage in these conversations. We interpret them as a threat to the harmony that we experience in the workplace, perhaps a threat to our identity. What many organisations want is harmony, but what many end up with is artificial harmony. It looks like we get along. We have a positive culture, right? Everyone's happy here. But there's all of this unspoken resentment or opinions or voices that we're not hearing. And that artificial harmony is a true enemy of DEI progress. And you have to unpack it.”

HR leaders should embrace this discomfort as an opportunity to foster growth, learning and a genuine commitment to creating a more equitable workplace. We interpret them as a threat to the harmony that we experience in the workplace, perhaps a threat to our identity, right? And we really want what many, many organisations have. We really want harmony, but what many organisations end up with is artificial harmony.

  1. The risks of inaction

While discussions around the risks of taking action and potentially making mistakes are common, it is crucial to acknowledge the risks of inaction. Staying silent perpetuates inequities and hinders progress. Leaders need to evaluate the risks of not speaking up and actively work towards creating real change.

Gallo suggests reframing the risk assessment, shifting the focus from the risks of action to the risks of inaction. She advises assessing the consequences of remaining silent and emphasises the importance of vulnerability and honesty. "Mistakes are part of learning. It is important to be vulnerable, honest and acknowledge biases to create a safe environment for difficult conversations," Gallo explains.

  1. Psychological safety and difficult conversations

Creating psychological safety within teams and organisations is essential to foster an environment where difficult conversations can take place effectively. Amy Edmondson's work on psychological safety highlights the importance of trust and open communication. It is essential to distinguish between safety and comfort, as discomfort is often an inherent part of growth and innovation.

Psychological safety goes beyond feeling comfortable all the time. Gallo states: “The key is you can fail, you can say something that rubs someone the wrong way, that maybe even harms them. And it's not the end of the story, it's the continuation of the conversation in which that statement didn't land well with me. Let's explore why.”

Building equity and psychological safety within the workplace is a continuous journey that requires conscious effort and a commitment to growth. Organisations must move beyond merely addressing diversity and inclusion by actively dismantling the barriers that have historically excluded individuals. HR leaders hold the power to shape policies, spark uncomfortable conversations and drive meaningful change.

As Gallo and Tulshyan emphasise, leaders must be open to vulnerability, reflective of their biases and willing to listen. By creating environments that prioritise equality, organisations can foster innovation, collaboration and productivity, setting the stage for a more inclusive and equitable future of work. As they say, let’s not shy away from these uncomfortable conversations. Instead, let's lean into them with empathy, curiosity and a commitment to change. As Gallo concludes: “We need to give our people the tools to address this because we can't wait around for the patriarchy to be dismantled and racism to be fixed before we actually allow people to address the incidents that they experience.”

The HR Leaders Club is a members-only club for practising senior HR and people leaders. To find out more click here

Published 6 December 2023
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