DiversityInc’s Carolynn Johnson Discusses Psychological Safety with Dow

Here at DiversityInc, we’re data people. Our Top 50 assessment and specialty lists are based on data collected from the roughly 1,800 major employers who take our annual survey, which covers policies, practices and procedures as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

While the data is how we determine how to go forward with our Top 50 and specialty lists as well as providing strategic advisory services on DEI initiatives in general, it’s still important to recognize how people within your organization are feeling and create a space of psychological safety.

That was the message that was shared during a fireside chat between DiversityInc CEO Carolynn L. Johnson and Louis Vega, President of Dow North America (Dow ranked No. 15 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list).

Johnson shared a story of how when she was getting ready for her chat with Vega, she was thinking about what type of chairs they would be sitting in and whether she should wear a dress or pants and what people would think of her. She used this as an example of psychological safety.

“We spend so much time in environments where people make things a big issue that when we go to other environments we take it with us,” she said, explaining how the debate over wearing a dress or pants that day was sparked by how she was raised in the Baptist church and the expectations her grandmothers had for her growing up. “That psychological safety piece of it is just how do I feel and how am I made to feel because those are two very different things.”

“I got myself worked up, I hadn’t laid an eye on any face in this room and I am already freaking out about if you’re going to be worried about seeing my legs or that I am wearing pants. That’s just silly. It’s in us, it’s who we are and that’s why employers have to consider that when we’re trying to make sure that our teams work well together.”

How are Companies Prioritizing Psychological Safety?

 When asked which companies “get it right” in providing psychological safety, Johnson said that’s not information that is collected as part of the Top 50 survey, but that some companies have an opportunity to share this as additional information outside the survey.

The reality is that people don’t feel like they can be 100% honest anywhere, whether that’s in a professional relationship or a personal relationship. But companies are finding ways to prioritize psychological safety, especially after COVID when people were isolated in some form, by conducting pulse surveys, team check-ins and mixers, Johnson said.

The Impact of Psychological Safety

When it comes to psychological safety, Johnson said she has both moments she can look back on in her career that she’s proud of and that she isn’t proud of. She started with a moment she was not so proud of because she didn’t have psychological safety.

Johnson was raised in New Jersey in a two-parent home. Her father was an operational engineer as was her grandfather, and both served in the armed forces. Her grandfather was in World War II and her dad in Vietnam. Given her upbringing, she was taught not to challenge authority publicly. She brought these lived experiences to a management meeting earlier in her career and said she didn’t understand the power of her voice.

“I didn’t understand the power of my voice because I didn’t feel safe and because I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t protect others, and so I put their safety in jeopardy,” she said. “That is the power of making sure people understand their role in a company, their authority in the company and that it will still be valued if they don’t agree with you.

“I didn’t know if people would disagree with me, but I just didn’t have confidence in my voice because I was a different person in the room. I was the youngest person, a woman, the only Black person, but I made that an issue for me and I wasn’t exactly certain if it was an issue for them and I didn’t even challenge it, that’s a moment that I am not so proud of.”

Johnson said she is proud of how she’s dealt with post-COVID challenges head-on with the team at DiversityInc.

“Those are moments that I am proud of because I took what I learned and what I lost and I made sure that I won’t lose them that way ever again,” she said.

How to Read if Someone Isn’t Feeling Safe

In times when someone is experiencing negative psychological safety, Vega said there’s a role other leaders at the table should be playing. He asked Johnson for her advice on how to read if someone isn’t feeling safe or isn’t bringing their voice to conversations.

“The first thing is to actually be present,” she said. “Don’t have your phone out if you don’t have to, checking emails, being busy for no reason, but actually be present in that moment so you can pick up on the cues.”

In the current environment where people are returning to offices and maybe interacting with coworkers in-person for the first time or meeting them for the first time, it is crucial for leaders to pay attention to cues – what they hear, see, the questions that are asked and how people respond to them.

If you notice something, check in with that person after the meeting, and check in with employees when things are good, bad or need improvement.

“Make sure you’re accessible, that people see you’re paying attention, you’re modeling leadership behavior, that you’re not doing 12 things at once you’re so frantic you can’t focus, and then just make sure that to the degree that you can, you’re making sure that people feel supported, welcome and that you are approachable,” Johnson said. “That’s some of the advice I can offer as we’re returning to the office and working differently together.”

If someone isn’t feeling safe, Johnson suggests talking to a coach or a mentor.

“Check in with a coach. Share what you experienced, play back the moment in your mind and be discerning as to whether it deserves all the energy that you’re giving it,” she said. “I think sometimes we get more wrapped around the axle with things that we’re perceiving are happening in that moment but as we process it, we’re like, ‘OK, well maybe this, or maybe that or maybe this.’

“Make sure you’re being honest with yourself about what really happened, check in with folks and share with them what happened but develop relationships with that group so that you can then talk about it later if it it’s really bothering you.”

Johnson added that it is important to have a coach or a mentor not only for emergency situations, but also throughout your career so that they can observe you and “help you understand how you show up versus how you want to show up because they are not always the same thing.” Coaches and mentors can be family, friends and colleagues from your current job and even previous jobs.

Last but not least, consider going to therapy.

“At some point, with all that folks go through, coaching and therapy are two very different things. Be honest with yourself about whether you need therapy to be your best self,” Johnson said.

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