Nearly all companies now implement Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training. Among other things, DEI training aspires to give employees a deeper understanding of the complex ways in which historical and continuing discrimination has shaped the workplace and society more broadly. Promoting that understanding is vitally important, but it shouldn’t be the only goal of DEI.
There is another aspect to diversity that isn’t given nearly the attention it merits in traditional DEI training: respect for diverse perspectives. Greater attention in DEI training to the diversity of perspectives in any workplace can improve morale and promote team building. It can also enhance innovation. After all, innovation can only occur when employees have the humility to recognize that a product or service can be dramatically improved by thinking about it in a new way.
A workplace staffed by employees who insist that their way of looking at things is the only legitimate way, and that they have nothing to gain by considering alternative views is going to be neither innovative nor harmonious. By contrast, a workplace where employees feel empowered to both express their views and listen with an open mind to the (potentially countervailing) views of others will be far more innovative and hospitable.
In other words, the reasons to build a workplace culture that welcomes a diversity of viewpoints aren’t only moral (it’s the right thing to do) and practical (a range of perspectives exists in any workplace; we might as well acknowledge it), although those are certainly compelling. Welcoming a diversity of perspectives also makes good business sense.
In 2012, Google undertook a massive research endeavor to figure out what makes successful teams. One of the main findings from Project Aristotle was that psychological safety matters. As author Greg Satell wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “what [the study] found that mattered most to team performance was … the ability of each team member to be able to give voice to their ideas without fear of reprisal or rebuke.”
So what are some of the causes of fear of reprisal or rebuke, how do those relate to the need to welcome diverse perspectives, and how does that, in turn, relate to innovation? The term psychological safety is one that’s been around for a while in the business literature. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson wrote in a 1999 paper that it refers to a culture where there’s “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
In her 2014 TEDx talk, Edmonson said that creating this culture of psychological safety is, in part, a function of modelling curiosity and acknowledging our own fallibility. It turns out that these two tools are the very same ones that are needed to build a culture that welcomes a diversity of political and ideological perspectives. We simply need to recognize that they need to be applied in this way.
The importance of this application is anecdotally supported in a 2017 blog post by Sam Altman, a tech entrepreneur and investor who has served as an executive at Y Combinator and is currently the CEO of OpenAI. He wrote, “Restricting speech leads to restricting ideas and therefore restricted innovation—the most successful societies have generally been the most open ones….To get the really good ideas, we need to tolerate really bad and wacky ideas too.” Ultimately, in an environment of too much restriction, innovation can’t thrive.
Taking together, the Google study, Edmonson’s findings, and Altman’s anecdotal observations, suggest that a work environment where people consider only one political or ideological viewpoint to be acceptable is incompatible with innovation. The perception that there’s only one acceptable party line leads straight to the restricted speech Altman referred to and away from the culture of risk-taking that Edmonson observed is crucial for success.
To be sure, making the observation that too many social restrictions on speech is counterproductive is in no way the same as suggesting no expression should be off limits, or that people should all say whatever pops into our their minds, with no filter. But when—as occurs in many workplaces—there is an explicit or implied prohibition on opposition to the loudest voices in the room on any number of controversial political or cultural issues, we do more than create a workplace environment that impedes expression on those specific topics. We elevate groupthink itself as a broader workplace value, with the inevitable and obvious negative consequences for innovation.
Given this, how can we re-conceptualize DEI training? One key step is to recognize that building respect for and understanding of the experiences of people who differ from us in their race, gender, gender identity, etc—the aims of traditional DEI training—shouldn’t be the only goals. DEI training should also build the capacity of psychological safety for people with different ideological orientations—and in doing so, advance the ability to constructively engage with the myriad ways in which people see the world.