Arena Masterclass - The Psychology of Diversity & Inclusion - Review

Before I begin, let's start with a riddle!

A father and son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son, badly injured, is rushed to hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son”.  How can this be?

Read on to find out the answer!

So last week, Maria and I had the pleasure and opportunity to speak for the Arena Network on our research into Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).

During the Masterclass, we discussed how our research has been helping to inform the development of EDI training and support interventions for leaders and line managers.

We discussed how our research came from conversations with EDI specialists who had shared their successes and challenges of EDI interventions.  While some were having success with initiatives such as education events, annonymous CVs to reduce bias, and employee engagement groups, several people said that “we aren’t able to reach everyone” and that some initiatives were failing as a result.

The majority of people we spoke to agreed that initiatives need the Leaders of the organisation to ‘Walk the Talk’ in relation to EDI but despite strong leadership “buy-in", some initiatives were still struggling to make a meaningful impact.

During the Masterclass, Maria and I shared how we started to ask ourselves - how do we speak to and reach all employees?  How do we make the experience valuable and impactful for everyone?  We reflected on the one thing we all share -  Psychology.

We discussed the individual psychology related to identity and how we identify ourselves through the things that matter most to us ( see Social Categorisation, Social Construct Theory, Henri Tajfel for for further reading)

The three factors about identity we explored were:

1.     How some people relate strongly to protected categories – while others don’t! For example, during our identity exercise, some heterosexual people do not note down their sexuality as part of their identity – they subconsciously don’t include it, despite it being a fundamental part of who they are.  We discussed how this leads nicely into the concept of ‘privilege ’and how, while some people don’t have to think about their protected categories, others have to think about their protected category all the time.

2.     Many people find it difficult to think about their identity as they have never been asked to consider it (which can be a sign of having a privileged status), while others think about it constantly. Some coaches who trialled our workshop said "This course is really challenging me to think about things I take for granted. This can help me when coaching my clients, to see the world through their eyes".  

3.     The other issue we explored is the fact that identity is a two-way process. It is not only how you categorise yourself, but how others categorise you.  For example, I know a woman who lives with another woman, but she does not identify as being part of the LGBTQi+ community.  The assumptions about people's relationship to their protected status can easily lead to micro-incivilities being made.

It never fails to surprise me, that when people share details of their identities, they share so much common ground and characteristics, which is often not explored. As a result, people are labelled based on first experiences and initial impressions.

We discussed how we found that the psychological issues for Inclusion become more difficult. We shared how there are many benefits of being in a group, such as:

  • Having a Strong Sense of Identity and sense of self.  This can actually help buffer us when we feel wronged or attacked. Studies show that those with a stronger   sense of group identity are impacted less severely and recover more quickly when they experience bias or bigotry.
  • Purpose - Our group identity often gives us a sense of common purpose around the pursuit of common goals.
  • Support - We are not only more likely to get support from people within our "tribe," but we are likely to experience their support as more valuable and more meaningful. This happens because we believe fellow "tribe members" are more likely to truly "get" how we feel so their support and validation resonates on a deeper level than support offered by those who are not members of our "tribe."

Being part of a group, however, leads to two biases forming - In-group favoritism (we see our group positively) and outgroup derogation (we see other groups negatively).

Other topics discussed included neuroscience of belonging, bias, stereotypes and privilege which the ‘them-us’ dynamic creates.

The key findings from our research were:

  • Diversity and Inclusion training needs to be given to all line managers.   Line    Managers need to understand:

                 o  Their own biases and how this impacts their own management and leadership of their teams.

                 o  Their role as an authority figure in the privilege system and understand how 'banter' can impact those in less privileged positions

                 o  Managers must factor in the intersectional vulnerability of their employees when managing and giving feedback - more emotional intelligence may be needed

  • EDI specialists may wish to consider their own supervision, in relation to how they get trapped in ‘them v us’ dynamics within the organisation or other issues where they face difficulties.

So,  the answer to that riddle at the start?

Well – the surgeon was the child’s mother.  If you didn’t see this, then this is an example of the impact of privilege in our society and the way we stereotype roles.

We would like to thank Martin Mason, Liz Alleston, Cynthia Kindagaire and The Arena Network team for inviting us to share our research and experiences on this vital topic.  

If you would like to become an Arena Network member, click here.

If you would like to discuss our EDI work further, please review our Conscious Inclusion Workshop here or contact Jonathan Lancaster by email or phone on +44 (0) 7931 944288.

Written by:
Matt Burdock

Executive Coaching, Culture Measurement, Leadership Development.

December 13, 2022