Thought Leader - Dr. Nabeel Ahmad

You probably work with someone who once wanted to tell leadership what they really thought about a particular initiative or decision they didn’t agree with. Perhaps it didn’t happen because they never spoke up. That’s understandable: Speaking up in this situation could backfire and derail your work or career. Sound familiar? 

The reality is that organizational culture greatly influences how comfortable employees at any level in an organization are in speaking up. Things like reporting structure, power dynamics and office politics all have a real effect on how we go about our days. 

What can we do to help overcome these cultural challenges? 

From Inclusion to Belonging 

Many organizations focus heavily on inclusion. They want to ensure that employees have a seat at the table to understand what’s going on. While great in theory, inclusion efforts often come up short. What inclusion offers in access, it often lacks in influence and authority. Belonging focuses on valuing each voice, even if what’s being said is different from your own beliefs or actions. 

While belonging is important at the organizational level, it’s even more critical for teams. Most of our work happens in teams, which influences our perception of workplace culture. Let’s explore two important characteristics for creating successful teams: 

Psychological Safety 

Psychological safety is related to trust. Teams with high psychological safety speak freely without fear of being punished for speaking up. Team members openly disagree in an intellectual and productive manner. They speak up without intimidation. With trust, you give the benefit of the doubt to others when they take a risk. With psychological safety, others give you the benefit when you take a risk. Cultures of belonging have high levels of psychological safety. 

Cognitive Diversity 

Teams whose members approach the same problem from different perspectives are cognitively diverse. Their multiple viewpoints help account for blind spots in decision-making. They think differently from one another and the sum of their thoughts creates multiple perspectives. With cognitively diverse teams, you are more likely to account for potential problem areas before it’s too late. 

Teams high in psychological safety and cognitive diversity are often the most successful. 

Technology for Belonging 

So, where does technology fit in to improve psychological safety and cognitive diversity? Use these practical insights to create a culture of belonging through technology: 

  • Anonymous Feedback: People are far more likely to give honest feedback when they know that it can’t be tracked back to them. Yet most organizations either ask for or track personal information. Use an anonymous feedback tool to ensure no personal information is captured. What you lose in tracking is made up by the wealth of insights you get. 
  • Focus at the Team Level: Instead of asking employees to self-assess, consider having them evaluate their team. A team can be defined in many ways, from those reporting to the same person to those working on the same project. Gain authentic feedback by asking how someone feels about their team. 
  • Report Aggregate Findings: You probably know someone who looks at “anonymous” survey results and tries to figure out who said what. It’s human nature to do it. Avoid this by reporting findings at the team level and discussing areas of strength and challenge areas.  
  • Connect the Dots: It’s better to make decisions on a line than on a point. Instead of taking action after looking at one data point, wait until you can connect multiple data points into a line and act on that trend. Pre- and post-assessments with prescribed activities in between are a useful way to achieve this.  

A Work in Progress 

Building a great organizational culture and creating successful teams takes time and is a continual process. Use technology to help foster a culture of belonging: You’ll know how well it works next time you speak up on a topic.