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Racism and Psychological Safety in the Workplace

This is a time of hurt, pain and frustration. We want to send a simple message to our friends, colleagues, clients and everyone that we've come to love so dearly: we stand with you.

There is no place for racism, prejudice or hatred in the world — let alone the business world. It is antithetical to the principles of emotional and mental wellbeing that Friday Pulse seeks to uphold.

It’s likely you come to this blog because you're concerned about the wellbeing of your people and sincerely want to help them. You want to make sure they are safe and well. As leaders, it's your responsibility to ensure the workplace is a refuge of physical and psychological safety.

In short, the role is to make the room as safe as possible. While implementing inclusive recruiting policies may help, racial issues and experiences need to be discussed and shared to encourage empathy and stronger emotional bonds among team members.

Your colleagues may look OK but, chances are, they're not

The workplace is supposed to be a “professional” environment. There's an understanding that if you're at work, you maintain a certain demeanour. Odds are, someone you work with or someone you have worked with will be affected by these issues. In the UK alone, 14% of the UK 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 employee wellbeing and how employees feel about the organization. Workplaces can become a place of psychological safety or become another place that threatens racial identity.

Compassionate curiosity, professional empathy

It's vital to express compassionate curiosity to understand different views.  As it's a professional environment, we can exercise professional empathy to ask better questions, be vulnerable and listen to our colleagues’ experiences to create safe places.

Sharing vulnerability (especially as a leader)
It's not easy for leaders to appear vulnerable. Leaders stand to lose a lot — respect of the team and/or important relationships. We might be afraid of saying the wrong thing, and that might keep us silent. But silence is not the right answer.

The first steps are to acknowledge what you don't know, understand your world views, and then educate yourself on how to be a better advocate. Listen to a diversity of voices, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Having conversations in the workplace about racism and race issues will, undoubtedly, be a little messy. But, your team holding in their fears and emotions can be far worse.

Ask deepening questions
We create workplaces of psychological safety when we exercise empathy and don't accept the surface level answer. "I'm fine" is rarely the whole truth. Ask follow-up questions that are open and empathetic to understand new viewpoints. There's a lot of vulnerability here, and a compassionate tone will help people open up.

A note — sometimes people aren't ready to talk, and that's fine. If they see how well you treat those that do share, then there may come a day where they will also share.

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 this is listening to our teams and letting them share their experiences. Leaders need to make sure that they switch into a learning mode, and not a telling/teaching mode as employees share their experiences. It's a vulnerable moment, but because we tend to keep our bad experiences away from workplace discussion, it can be a moment that creates stronger emotional bonds between team members.

Is there an ideal team size? 

Last weekend, the protests in the UK toppled a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol — a slave trader who operated out of the port. For years, many petitioned to have his statue removed as it represented an ugly part of history. But there was no action. Finally, the crowd took it into their own hands 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 statue earlier.

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

  • 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 chaotically.

Racism is a problem for everyone because it destroys the communities that we inhabit. It undermines wellbeing. If one group’s comfort comes by 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.