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Why Psychological Safety is Key to Improving Diversity

Saturday Spark #30

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

I started my career in management consulting. In the fall of 1992, I was living in New York City weekends and jetting up to client site in Boston weekdays. I had incredibly smart and fun colleagues and was learning a ton. I got my first laptop, a giant Toshiba that had to have weighed 15 lbs. My life was a lot like Anna Kendrick’s in Up in the Air, except without George Clooney.

I left consulting after three and a half years. My travel to Boston had morphed into years of travel to Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Trenton, and a rumor was circulating that Amarillo, TX was next. I was tired of living in sterile corporate apartments and missing key events back home. I loved my managers and paying down my school loans, but didn’t see a career path that felt rewarding AND sustainable. I watched numerous women, senior associates, and junior partners leave while their male colleagues stayed and made partner.

Twenty three years later, I found myself in a conversation with a partner at one of the world’s largest consulting firms. The firm is very progressive on diversity, equity, and inclusion. They have a target for gender equality at the senior ranks by 2025, but this partner’s part of the organization was at risk of missing that target despite doing everything recommended. This partner knew that something needed to change, but said, “I don’t think we even know which behaviors to focus on.” I suggested that WeSpire could run an analytical assessment to uncover if there were any notable demographic, situational, and behavioral differences. Then once we figured it out, if it was behavioral, we could design and run behavior change programs to fix it. If it was demographic or situational, that could guide the partners and human resources.

We collected and analyzed over 100 hypotheses from employees at all levels. Was it something demographic, like where an employee went to school or what they studied?  Was it something about what clients they were on or which partners they worked for? Or was it behavioral, ranging from mentoring or sponsorship, Myers Briggs type or Clifton Strengths? We gathered the data and ran statistical analytics to determine whether the differences were statistically significant.

We were able to rule out almost every single hypothesis. No differences based on which partner you worked for, which client you were on, your performance ratings, or how many billable hours you had. No differences in whether you were an athlete in college or majored in STEM. No differences based on whether you were an ENTJ or an ISFP, mentoring, or sponsorship.

What was statistically different?  Only one demographic element stood out: having a stay at home spouse. People who succeeded to partner, of both genders, were more likely to have a spouse that didn’t work. As people progressed, white male employees also had more spouses that didn’t work than women or underrepresented minorities. When we presented this finding, we knew it would highlight the four-day-a-week on the road grind that I experienced to deliver the product. Without rethinking that model, it was going to be difficult to solve the problem. We also identified that in younger generations, both genders were identifying the need for one person to be “home” for the other to succeed as a significant barrier to them staying at the firm. What had been a gender equity issue was becoming a generational issue.

The behavioral finding was equally striking, but also actionable: Women and underrepresented minorities felt significantly less psychologically safe in the organization. Psychological safety is the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”  When Google set out to study what drove high performing teams, their key finding was psychological safety. If you don’t feel safe, you tend to leave for some place you do.

We concluded that yes, the structural travel issues need to be addressed, given the increasing ability to deliver services digitally. But by focusing on behavioral initiatives to improve psychological safety, you would likely not only boost gender and racial equality but create a higher performing firm in the process.

Keep in mind that this firm had already done an extraordinary amount to drive equality in the workplace. They had generous educational programs and support, strong mentorship programs, tackled pay inequities, hired with equity in starting cohorts, and had very rigorous promotion and review processes. We likely would not have been able to rule out nearly as many hypotheses at other companies.

What this research taught me is how critical psychological safety is, not only for team performance but also for achieving diversity goals. This is particularly true for those companies who feel they have done everything advised, and still, aren’t where they want to be.

Quote of the Week:  “Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” – Patrick Lencioni

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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

Read Previous Week’s Spark: Why Bill Gates Should Run for President

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