How to Create Psychological Safety for LGBTQ+ Employees

Happy LGBTQ+ History Month, everyone!

As we celebrate this October, it is worth pausing to consider how organizational leaders can use neuroscience to foster inclusive work environments that ensure LGBTQ+ team members feel a strong sense of psychological safety. In other words, now is an excellent time to ask what managers and supervisors can do to be better allies to LGBTQ+ employees.

Psychological safety is what distinguishes the best performing teams, as Google’s Project Aristotle discovered after extensive research. Importantly, Google defines a psychologically safe environment as one in which “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.”

Psychological safety is of particular importance for workers who are LGBTQ+. According to Professor Kenji Yoshino, the director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at the NYU School of Law, LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely than members of any other underrepresented or historically marginalized group to engage in a behavior known as “covering.”

Employees Who Cover Their Identity Do Not Feel Like Full Team Members

Covering happens when employees hide aspects of their identity that are stigmatized by society. Individuals are most likely to engaging in covering when they feel being themselves will make them unsafe or lead to their being excluded.

Employees who are living as out and affirmed LGBTQ+ individuals still report covering at work. Deloitte research revealed that 61 percent of workers cover aspects of who they are in front of colleagues. A majority of these individuals report feeling their managers and supervisors tacitly or explicitly expect them to cover aspects of their identity.

It is mind-boggling to realize more than half of people work for leaders who they perceive as wanting them to hide aspects of themselves that rock the boat or make them stand out. What leaders who force everyone to mold themselves into a homogenous team are really telling people is that they need to fit in or find other job opportunities.

Meanwhile, companies that had what Sylvia Ann Hewlett and coauthors of the December 2013 Harvard Business Review article “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation” referred to as “two-dimensional diversity” were 70 percent more likely to out-innovate their competitors. Organizations build 2-D diversity by achieving a mix of inherent diversity and acquired diversity traits across their workforces.

Another problem is that employees whose managers expect them to engage in covering express lower commitment to their employers. Which makes sense. Why would anyone stay committed to an organization that signaled, “You’d be more acceptable to us if you were someone else”?

People typically engage in four types of covering.

Appearance-Based Covering

Appearance-based covering involves changing how one looks and what one wears to avoid being connected to the identity they are covering up. A covering employee might also alter their mannerisms and how they present themselves.

One of our friends who is gay recently provided a clear example of appearance-based covering when he talked about his company’s hybrid return-to-work schedule. “It’s so annoying,” the man said. “I feel like I have to ‘butch it up’ when I’m back in the office. I’ll really miss the casual be who you are-ness of the virtual office.”

Affiliation-Based Covering

This describes scenarios in which people avoid behaviors or affective displays that are closely tied to their covered identity. For example, a gay man might engage in code-switching by lowering his voice and using “straight” language to come across as more masculine.

As an example, our friend mentioned above leaves the room when people at work start talking about their significant others or romantic pursuits. Walking away allows him to avoid having to discuss a topic he considers uncomfortable. According to his own account, “I usually improvise an excuse to quickly get out of there.”

Advocacy-Based Covering

When one does not advocate for members of their own group or fails to show allyship when the conversation around that stigmatized group turns negative, they could be covering their own identity. Picture a lesbian who pretends to take no offense and expresses no disapproval when disparaging comments are made about the dating choices of a colleague who is also pursuing same-sex relationships.

Association-Based Covering

This is possibly the most harmful type of covering, as it involves avoiding the company of people who share one’s own identity. A person who engages in association-based covering is not merely hiding aspects of their authentic self. They are actively removing themselves from a network of potential and probable supporters, allies and friends. From a neuroscience perspective, they are avoiding interactions with in-group members and, thereby, closing off critical pathways to establishing connections that induce feelings of relatedness and belonging.

Aim to Make Employees Feel They Belong

How strongly an employee believes they belong with an organization is a good indicator of that employee’s commitment to the organization. For this reason, covering at work powerfully (and negatively) affects LGBTQ+ colleagues who have and have not come out to coworkers.

An LGBTQ+ employee who sees people like them succeed within the organization can use those individuals as role models. On the other hand, seeing no role models can cause organizational commitment to waver.

A summary of how this operates comes from what a senior leader in the diversity space at a well-known tech client who was a working parent once told us. “When I get asked about the difficulties of managing young kids and full-time work, I realize I have been a terrible ally and mentor to women without realizing it,” the person said. “I don’t want to complain, so I shrug it off. But my affiliation-based covering made it seem like this was easy for me. As a result, they [junior colleagues] engaged in association-based covering, thinking there was something wrong with them.”

10 Things Organizational Leaders Can Do

If you want employees to commit to the organization and their roles—if you want them to adopt a growth mindset and lean into challenges rather than give up—you need to cultivate a talent pool that includes people of all gender identities, all ethnicities and all sexual orientations. It is also critical that recruiting and hiring for diversity, and then managing for belonging, be genuine pursuits. Settling for token representation is patronizing and counterproductive.

So, what, specifically, can leaders do to ensure LGBTQ+ employees feel safe to show up as their authentic selves? How can organizations free LGBTQ+ people to express the creativity, exuberance and brilliant thinking they were hired for in the first place?

A lot. There are powerful, science-based actions managers and executives can take to create an environment of psychological safety where no employee senses a demand to fit in to a homogenous mold—an environment that declares, “We make space for who you are.”

Whether a person feels psychologically safe at work depends on whether their brain is signaling them to move away from threats. Think of it this way: A psychologically safe work environment encourages and enables employees to seek rewards while a psychologically unsafe work environment leads a person to constantly scan for risks of emotional, reputational and professional harm. When one’s antenna pings constantly with low-grade tension and anxiety in addition to being frequently overwhelmed by event-driven bouts of high-grade stress, physical exhaustion and psychological trauma can develop rapidly.

To guide the intentional creation of a psychologically safe work environment, our institute developed a framework for understanding the five domains of social threat and reward. These domains are defined in the accompanying table.

5 Domains of Social Threat and Reward: The SCARF Model®

 

Leaders can take the following steps to create a reward state for LGBTQ+ colleagues in each domain.

Status

Maximize the status of LGBTQ+ people by fostering a culture in which everyone is accorded the same level of respect.

  • Normalize pronoun sharing. Managers and supervisors should share their preferred pronouns voluntarily. Doing this without fanfare but in a highly public and visible way, such as during a staff meeting or in a group chat, can be highly effective. Encourage others to share their pronouns and prepare to answer questions about the announcement in a compelling but mundane manner, as if sharing one’s pronouns were the most normal thing in the world. The goal is to normalize the practice in order to facilitate respectful communication.
  • Punish microaggressions. Step in quickly to correct the behavior of an employee who jokes about pronouns. Treat this as a teachable moment and a prime opportunity to explain how someone else’s identity and, perhaps, lifelong struggle to articulate that identity should not serve as fodder for coworkers’ amusement.

Certainty

Maximize employees’ certainty by clearly communicating the reasons why decisions were made and actions were taken. Leave no one wondering if bias was involved.

  • Explain yourself. Do not fall prey to the illusion of transparency, which is a cognitive bias toward believing one’s motivations and reasoning are plainly visible to others. Instead, go the extra mile and clearly explain what you were thinking and why you did what you did. Committing to this can mean striving to resolve confusion about your intent following a clumsy conversation that caused offense.
  • Don’t leave people in the dark. The brain perceives uncertainty as more threatening than visible dangers. In the absence of clear information, people often assume the worst. When you make a decision that impacts LGBTQ+ employees in particular, proactively share your rationale to minimize the opportunities affected employees have to infer heteronormative bias.

Autonomy

Respect LGBTQ+ team members’ choices to disclose and discuss their identities and experiences as they choose.

  • Do not force employees to come out. People may not want to discuss their sexual orientation, gender identity or any other aspect of their private lives with coworkers. Their choice to keep information about themselves to themselves may have nothing to do with covering. Just as managers should never pressure an employee to out themselves, managers must never allow others to badger an employee with questions, taunts or peer pressure.
  • Empower employees to engage in the conversations they want to have. Never shy away from a serious conversation about sexual orientation or gender identity that an employee initiates. Responding with something like, “It’s fine that you’re gay, but let’s not talk about it, OK?” guarantees more covering and sends the message that the employee will never fully belong in the organization. Make it a rule that any topic straight employees are allowed to discuss is in bounds for LGBTQ+ employees. Applying this rule consistently could provide insights into what is inappropriate in terms of sexism and misogyny, as well.

Relatedness

Be a firm and public ally to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

  • Invest in your own education. Take a course or spend time researching the history of and issues faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community. If you only know “Stonewall” as a word describing a passive-aggressive negotiating tactic, you must take this tip.
  • Publicly ally yourself with LGBTQ+ staff. Start by simply having their back. Do not laugh at gay jokes, don’t use derogatory slang and don’t let disparaging comments by others pass without notice. Make it known that you are not taking part in demeaning others because you find doing so offensive, not because LGBTQ+ people are fragile or oversensitive. Saying, “Now guys, you know that Eric is gay. Please don’t say things that could offend him,” is not practicing allyship. Making such a statement sends the message that everyone could enjoy cruel jokes at Eric’s expense if only he were not within earshot. That only exacerbates the problem by encouraging Eric’s coworkers to perceive his presence as a threat to their good time.

Fairness

Make sure HR policies do not promote inequity.

  • Ensure benefits are equitable and inclusive. Too often, processes that seem reasonable actually promote discriminatory practices. A real-world example of this involves prioritizing the granting of paid time off to employees with children because workers who are not parents “won’t mind” working on major holidays. This discounts the feelings and needs of single people and everyone on staff who cannot or chooses not to start a family.
  • Award opportunities based on performance. Do not disproportionally assign plumb roles to employees who have time for corridor conversations, office drop-bys and afterwork social events. Doing that excludes workers who care for young children and team members who work remotely.

Paying careful attention to issues of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness while showing true allyship allows organizational leaders to create and maintain a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ team members. Taking the 10 steps outlined here puts leaders on the path to ensuring team members feel safe to be themselves and bring their authentic selves to work. An organization where such a psychologically safe environment exists will reap the benefits of higher engagement, stronger organizational commitment and greater innovation.

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