OHS Canada Magazine

Why the concept of IDEA can fall short: Insights through a psychologically safe workplace lens

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January 8, 2024
By Bill Howatt

Health & Safety Diversity IDEA Mental Health Psychological Safety

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“We will all profit from a more diverse, inclusive society, understanding, accommodating, even celebrating our differences, while pulling together for the common good.” ― Ruth Bader Ginsburg

On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), how confident are you that beyond posters, emails, colourful lanyards and offering annual diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, all employees feel a sense of belonging in your workplace? What is the evidence for your response? If it’s “what I think” or “my experience,” that’s not good enough.

One major challenge I notice more than I like when engaging senior leaders and employees in conversations about inclusion and psychological safety is the lack of awareness of the difference between perception and perspective. When a person is stuck in their perception, they lose the opportunity for humility needed to discover their implicit bias (i.e., unconscious attitudes and beliefs).

In this same conversation, I often notice what leaders believe is promoting DEI is nothing more than optics and a check-the-box routine. There is no measurement or structure for a meaningful review and program impact evaluation until senior leadership becomes aware and understands how subtle and damaging oppression is for maintaining the status quo. It does this by not seeking to understand marginalized groups’ experiences, having a lens for noticing, or — even worse — unconsciously dismissing or belittling others’ experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

Over, covert discrimination

Marginalized groups, including women, employees with disabilities, LGBTQ+ persons, employees of colour, employees with neurodivergence or mental illness, including all forms of addictive disorders, or who live in a lower socio-economic status typically make up a significant percentage of a workforce.


Overt and covert discrimination drives marginalization. Examples are workplaces where leaders, from the CEO to frontline managers, are blind to behaviours that drive fear, isolation, and silence, such as micro-aggressions, gaslighting, intentional isolating, taking credit for others’ ideas, and making assumptions based on stereotypes.

Inclusion, diversity, equity, and abilities/accommodation (IDEA) remain aspirational and often fall short because employees fear speaking up, questioning, or challenging discrimination. There also is a lack of literacy within most workforces on what IDEA means. Although inclusion and diversity are interconnected concepts that are by no means interchangeable terms, inclusion is how well different groups within a workforce feel they belong and are valued and welcomed. Diversity focuses on the representation of different groups within an organization. Key IDEA objectives are removing barriers and recognizing the benefits of ensuring all employees feel equally involved and supported in all workplace areas.

A recent study completed in partnership with Dr. Lee-Baggley & Associates using the Workplace Psychological Safety Assessment (WPSA) approved by SMU Research Ethics Board involved 3781 participants. We examined the participants’ Inclusivity Workplace Scale (IWS) of seven inclusion items that can also be found in the Perceptions of workplace inclusion quick survey role.

We learned that there is a significant statistical experience difference between two groups of employees. Employees with lower inclusivity levels reported less desirable workplace experiences.

The analysis provided evidence of the importance of employees’ perception of feeling welcomed, safe, belonged, respected, valued, heard, or understood. The relationship analysis of employees’ inclusivity levels predicted their experience. Employees with low inclusivity levels were at more significant risk of experiencing incivility, bullying, and harassment. They were more likely to be negatively impacted by workplace psychosocial risk factors, report lower resiliency levels, and be at more risk of mental harm due to psychosocial hazards and go on short-term disability due to mental illness.

This study suggests that employers will never fully obtain the IDEA potential until there is a solid, psychologically safe foundation where fear and silence have been removed. A psychologically safe foundation promotes a culture that holds people accountable for their behaviours and allows them to learn and grow from mistakes without fear, judgement, or adverse consequences.

Key performance behaviours

Examples of key performance behaviours (KPBs) that employees and leaders can demonstrate include listening with empathy, compassion and allowing and encouraging challenging and debating ideas. Success is when all employees feel safe to speak their minds without fear of retribution or retaliation. This does not mean leaders must agree, or employees can do whatever they want.

Psychological safety is not an idea or philosophy nor is it about what an employer is doing. It is about why they are doing it and decisions and behaviours that directly impact the employee experience, such as how work is organized, interpersonal interactions, working conditions, and equipment provided to employees. Command-and-control leaders who talk at their teams create different emotions than trusted leaders who talk with their employees.

Employers and CEOs must understand that how employees feel in the workplace matters as it influences their thinking and behaviours. Senior leaders do not need to be experts. They only need to set the terms and expectations for their psychological safety playbook. There is little hope the concept of IDEA will achieve its potential when there is fear in a workplace, especially among marginalized groups who fear losing their jobs if they speak up or question anything being done to them.

Tips for employers

Tips for employers that want to mature the IDEA concept through leveraging two psychological safety lead practices:

Obtain an intersectional, psychologically safe baseline and remeasure regularly

Collect valuable qualitative and quantitative data on employees’ experiences regularly. Through focus groups, interviews, pulse checks or online validated assessments like the WPSA, employers can gather meaningful data that shines a light on employees’ perceptions of their mental fitness/resiliency and psychosocial risk factors that drain or charge them. The data also notes psychosocial hazards (e.g., fatigue, anxiety), workforce involvement levels, the perceived value of current programs, employees’ experiences with direct leaders and peers, and concerns about incivility, bullying, and harassment.

Collecting data on employees’ inclusivity levels is critical to facilitate an intersectional analysis. This data allows for intersectional grouping analyses such as gender fluidity, age, diversity, and neurodivergence versus neurotypical groupings’ inclusivity levels, allowing employers to compare low inclusivity groups’ scores to higher inclusivity groups’ scores against the above employee experience scales.

Employers will not know how effectively their employee experience strategies facilitate psychological safety, workplace mental health, and IDEA without proper data and analysis. Employers will benefit from leveraging social scientists with expertise in statistics to help them obtain statistically accurate, evidence-based baseline results that can be easily explained to employees and leaders.

My coaching to employers is that collecting the right kind of workplace data is an art (e.g., how to get employees engaged and trust the process) and a science (e.g., data collected is accurate). Anyone can make a survey these days; however, making a scientifically sound one requires expertise. A wise investment is getting robust workplace analytics to avoid guessing and assumptions, which is often the case when laypersons try to interpret descriptive data.

Educate to create habits

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes I see too many employers making repeatedly is investing in training and development without a road map for creating habits. General education to increase awareness is a fantastic way to spark curiosity and close ignorance gaps. However, driving IDEA literacy requires a plan that creates a program with a goal. The standard for a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach is a core, as are constant reinforcement, monitoring, incentives, and consequences. Random acts of inclusion can spark awareness like Bell’s Let’s Talk does for mental illness.

However, until CEOs and senior leadership realize that information is useless until it becomes a habit, success will continue to be evaluated by participation levels instead of employees’ feelings. Leading change to create a place where all employees feel a sense of belonging and welcome is not about giving anything up; it is about discovering we all have different experiences.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.


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