CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
After the summer of 2020 in the United States, many organizations made a big push to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in their ranks and operations. That meant new jobs, new initiatives, and top level focus on the issue. Some companies put more people of color in leadership ranks, some overhauled their compensation to improve pay equity. There was real change.
But at the moment, the momentum for these changes seems to have slowed. In the face of economic uncertainty, many businesses have quietly taken resources away from these DEI efforts.
Today’s guest presents a way to recommit. Laura Morgan Roberts says one of the best ways forward at this moment is to coalesce efforts about making life better for all workers. Roberts is an organizational psychologist and a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. She’s the author of the HBR Big Idea article, “Where Does DEI Go from Here?” Welcome back to the show, Laura.
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: I’m glad that we are having this conversation now, right? I know somebody who works in a DEI office in a company and she went to a conference recently and everyone was scared, like staffs were just down everywhere. I want to hear more about why big picture you see the focus on creating better conditions for all workers as an important step forward here.
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: I think the focus on creating better conditions for all workers has always been the driving force for DEI efforts, for workforce engagements efforts, for any leader who caress about their business outcomes, who cares about their organizational service and impact, and who caress about the human beings who are tasked with the tremendous responsibility of driving for results and driving for impact. There’s no way for us to reach our aspirational goals individually or collectively if we’re operating in organizations and societies that don’t welcome and invite everyone to be able to flourish as their best, most authentic self.
But the second piece is about the specific impact on individuals who belong to marginalized groups, those who have been historically excluded or disproportionately relegated to the lowest levels of the workforce with less access to education and with less opportunities in high mobility and high wage-earning jobs. We know that when people bring in diverse perspectives and ideas that come from their lived experiences, organizations are better positioned to meet the needs of the present and to grow and build for the future. Building more inclusive organizations with a wide array of diverse backgrounds is no easy task.
So leaders have to be even more focused, intentional, and sophisticated in approaching this work. This is not the time to pull back or drop the ball on what is the most central question that leaders are going to continue to face now and into the future, and that is how to create a workforce in which everybody can thrive and flourish, including, and especially those, who historically not had those opportunities to do so at work.
CURT NICKISCH: Okay, let’s dive into this idea of the four freedoms. I do like this sort of broader take on what workers want from their jobs. It’s not about specific things like ping pong tables or bonuses, right? This is about agency and what you’re striving for.
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: That’s right. I really believe that the universal quest and aspiration for freedom and that agency that goes along with it is something that is core to humanity. But we also look at the workplace as the backdrop of freedom. And it’s challenging sometimes for individuals to be able to bring that sense of agency and bring that sense of ownership into the work that they are engaging in.
Around the world we know there’s been a history of forced labor in fact. There was actual enslavement of humans and plantations. There are exploited laborers who don’t have the working conditions that they need or the compensation that they deserve in various parts of the world, past and present. And even in the modern knowledge economy, we still have a lot of individuals who just struggle with feeling like it’s a safe and free environment for them to be able to express their ideas, go against the grain, so to speak. And when people have those concerns about their freedom, when they feel that their freedom is being restricted at work, even figuratively and psychologically, their performance suffers, their wellbeing also suffers.
CURT NICKISCH: So the first of these freedoms that you outline is being able to be our authentic selves. Tell us more about why that’s important not just for organizations and teams, but also individually.
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: The freedom to be is probably where I first started this research and started to build out this framework. You might think that being yourself or the freedom to be is just simple. Why do we need a long conversation about that? Well, that may hold for people who belong to the dominant group within an organization.
They kind of take for granted that the norms of the organization have been established based on their values closely approximating their personal style, their interests, their recreational activities, or maybe even their belief system. But think about people who don’t fit within that dominant group. Something as subtle as your name, whether in the United States, your name is one that is an ethnic sounding name or a name that people assume is referencing a white person, that can determine whether or not your resume gets selected in a callback pool. And that signal alone is enough to start to limit and reduce your career and job opportunities.
This is also true around the world. For instance, in Singapore, you have individuals who don’t share their mental health challenges. In fact, two-thirds of the respondents of a survey said they would not share that at work. We’ll get to some of that a little bit later in the other freedoms too. But all of these adjustments, these choices to hide and suppress, key parts of my identity, they do come at a cost as cognitively distracting. It’s emotionally harmful.
And my performance can therefore suffer. If I’m having to spend all of this time modifying the way that I show up at work so that I’ll be acceptable or welcomed within the dominant or mainstream culture, I’m not just free to be me and engage in the task itself. I’m in fact engaging in additional forms of identity work to try to get ahead and to try to be accepted.
Professor Patricia Hewlin at McGill University has conducted decades of research on the topic of facades of conformity, and she shows that the majority of people who identify as a minority in some way are also less likely to express these unique ideas and perceptions that they bring into the workplace. So here we are thinking we are going out and hiring a broad set of individuals so that we can get these diverse opinions and perspectives at work. But these diverse individuals come into work and they don’t want to express the things that are most distinctive and special and unique about themselves. So we’re all missing out on the value of that diversity when people are not free to be or express our authentic selves at work.
CURT NICKISCH: Now, the next freedom, becoming our best selves, that sounds so positive, right? So aspirational. Why might someone actually not have that freedom at their organization as it stands today?
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: I mean, what organization would not want everybody who is a part of the organization to bring their best, to give their best effort, and to become their best as a result of being a part of that organization? It’s pretty ironic when we look back at this Gallup data on engagement and we realize that the vast majority of workers are not having that experience. And there are two key reasons. The first is they don’t feel that they have the opportunity to express their authentic selves at work. And so, if I’m hiding who I am and putting forth all that energy and suppressing my identity, it’s going to be very challenging for me to bring my best self to work, right?
But the second aspect of bringing our best self to work has to do with actively engaging our strengths. So activating our strengths at work, growing, developing, and cultivating those strengths. And here’s where we see another set of disparities enter around freedom at work or the lack thereof, that there are many individuals in the organization who don’t receive the same kind of high quality feedback, the same kind of affirmation or the same level of developmental opportunities as their counterparts. And so, they remain stuck at lower levels of the organization. They remain undervalued and under rewarded with respect to their contributions to the organization. And unfortunately, these discrepancies often fall on the lines of race and gender.
CURT NICKISCH: The freedom to occasionally fade into the background, that’s so intriguing. Why is that necessary?
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: Oh, this one is where the conversation really starts to get juicy, I would say. It might sound like the freedom to fade is a direct contradiction against the freedom to become our best selves. But what I’ve learned from my research is that the two actually go hand in hand, right? There are components of tapping into our best self that require us to fully maximize, to optimize, to bring the very best of ourselves and our strengths to work. But there are also times in which we need opportunities to be able to pull back, fade into the background, learn, grow, rest, restore, rejuvenate, and just craft a healthy balance between work and other aspects of our life. It’s that level of agency that determines whether or not we have a healthy relationship and connection with our work or one in which we feel exploited, and therefore it’s not a gratifying and therefore not a healthy relationship with our work and with our employment.
So people are seeking, especially the younger generation today, is seeking more of this freedom to fade. In fact, we might say they’re starting to demand it. They expect more work-life integration when they desire it. They expect to be able to create firmer boundaries between work and life when they desire that too. They want to set their own hours, they want to set their own schedule. They like a flex work lifestyle. So all of those different expectations and demands seed from in some way this desire to feel more free to set the terms of their work, to set the terms of their employment so that they can be most present when they are at work and optimize and make the best and most use of their time when they are at work, but also have room in their life for other things that they value and they care about.
CURT NICKISCH: Now finally, the freedom to fail in ways that help us learn is interesting because again, we know this is good from an organizational perspective, often hard to put into practice. Why is this a good thing to think about for individuals, the freedom to fail?
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: Many scholars have identified that when people feel more free or more safe to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns and mistakes, they will engage in more interpersonal risk taking and that benefits the performance of the team. And so, one reason that people need to feel more free to fail is so that they can experiment, they can innovate. It will enhance the team’s performance.
There’s a different body of research led by Professor Ashleigh Rosette at Duke Fuqua on leadership attributes and expectations. It’s called implicit leadership theory. She has conducted a series of studies over decades again here that shows that leaders from marginalized and minoritized groups face more performance pressure and a higher degree of scrutiny. So there’s much less room for them to fail. When they do fail, the court of public opinion around that failure is much more harsh than when their majority counterparts fail.
On the flip side, when they succeed, they don’t tend to get the same credit or the same boost in the court of public opinion. There’s other research that shows the same disparity and failures and successes translates to performance evaluations and subsequent relevant decisions about where our careers go and how they evolve and whether we get selected to lead or not. For instance, Joan Williams and colleagues researched this in dynamic in law firms. Again, finding that women and people of color and Black employees in particular were evaluated more harshly. They were scrutinized more closely and heavily so that in their evaluations, people identified more errors with those groups compared to their counterparts. Even if those groups are engaging in the same set of behaviors, they get penalized more heavily for those failures.
So this freedom to fail here brings us back to the opening question. Yes, we want to create an environment in which all employees have the opportunity to thrive and flourish at work. In order to do that, we can use this freedom framework to identify where there are needs across the board and also highlight where there are some unique disparities and patterns that have systemically and historically disadvantaged members of some groups in the workforce relative to their counterparts. And then we start to take up the question of creating a more fair organization, a more just workplace, a more equitable society that allows everybody to have access to these freedoms, again, in ways that can help to benefit the individuals in the organization, not at the expense or the abuse of other people within the organization or within society.
CURT NICKISCH: How can an organization start using this freedom framework? Is this simply a question that any executive, any manager, any decision maker can ask themselves? Like, “Is what I’m doing now, is this new policy, is this hiring decision we’re making helping foster the freedom to be your best self, helping foster the freedom to fail or fade into the background or be authentic at work?”
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: I think that all leaders need to really look in the mirror individually and collectively and make a decision about whether or not these freedoms are a part of their core culture. There are many organizations in which conformity is highly valued. So those organizations need to understand that if conformity is a strong part of their culture, that employees, especially those who diverge from the dominant group or the majority group, are not going to feel as free to express their authentic selves. And so, there’s a cost that they’ll pay for that. There are trade-offs that they will pay. So do a cultural audit. “Are these four freedoms a key component of your organizational culture?” If not, what are the likely consequences of not investing in or restricting those freedoms in your organization across the board?
Second, collect some data around these four freedoms at work. There are numerous engagement and inclusion scales that tap into whether people feel they can bring or express their authentic selves at work. There are numerous data points that help us to see whether people are growing and developing at work. If we have the right kinds of mentoring and learning programs in our organizations that allow people to grow and develop into their best selves, we can learn more about people’s preferences and their needs for different types of work arrangements and the extent to which they need to fade and how we can incorporate that in ways that still allow us to get the most important work of the organization done.
And then with freedom to fail, again, collecting data on psychological safety, using failures as opportunities for learning. I think those will help us to see where the strengths are in terms of freedom at work and also where some of the disparities might be. I would also recommend leaders to start to think about interventions that they can put in place that would help to establish or that would help to advance these freedoms at work.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What kinds of interventions are you talking about here?
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: As I think about interventions at work and how they can be helpful, I like to start with the fourth freedom and then work my way back up. So the freedom to fail, the intervention here is to help people to fail and learn from the failure and improve and grow. So we want to help people to, as Amy Edmondson says, fail smarter. We’re not encouraging people to just be able to fail, reckless abandon, no consequences at all.
So after-action reviews are especially helpful and valuable in this case. What went well? What didn’t go well? What would a second chance look like? How are we going to help set an individual up for improvement so that in the future circumstance they won’t fail in the same way that they did previously? When we have across the board candid after-action reviews where leaders acknowledge things that didn’t go well that were their responsibility and they may have made some errors and mistakes, I think it helps to set the tone.
In the freedom to fail, we also talked about the shifting standards and how people who belong to marginalized groups are often evaluated unfairly or in more biased ways. And so that’s going to be a theme for the interventions as well, is really looking at the disparities around performance evaluation, around hiring and selection and putting in place some anti-biased training that will help people to evaluate more fairly and to not hold members of certain groups to a higher standard and penalize them more heavily, but give everybody the opportunities and the resources that they need. Be willing to bet on people’s potential, right? Giving them mentors, giving them coaches, having sponsorship programs and leadership development and learning opportunities within the organization is really important for helping people to tap into and activate their best selves.
CURT NICKISCH: So let’s say you apply this freedom framework. You do the audit, you take these steps, you make these interventions. How do you measure success?
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: One of the ways that I’ve tried to approach this program of research with caution is in thinking about freedom at work as if we’re just talking free rein, right? With no guard rails whatsoever, where individuals have no responsibility to one another. It’s all about just doing whatever makes me feel most free, which gives me the most personal pleasure and comfort regardless of whether or not it does harm or damage to other people with whom I work or other people that are impacted by my work.
And so the quote by author Tony Morrison really speaks to me in reminding me that recklessness in and of itself is not freedom. The real purpose of freedom is to free somebody else. Another author, Audre Lorde said, “Without community, there is no liberation.” So when I think about this idea of success, I have to think about it on the level of the organization and the community and how we are operating together in ways that people feel are just and fair and inclusive. We’ll know we’re there when people are experiencing respect and generative collaboration, and they report that they are not only feeling more free to express themselves, but that they are making progress individually and collectively toward becoming our best selves.
So this is an ongoing pursuit, right? And that’s why the idea of success and even the idea of freedom is somewhat elusive. We’re always learning. We’re always adjusting. We’re always dismantling parts of the system that are constraining, confining, or oppressive and we’re rebuilding in ways that will allow us to co-create the most value. If we’re feeling more free, people are experiencing more thriving at work. We’re working together toward this collective pursuit where racial diversity, inclusion, equity, justice, and other dimensions of difference help us to all experience more freedom and flourishing at work and beyond.
CURT NICKISCH: Laura, thanks so much for coming on the show to talk about this.
LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS: Thank you for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Laura Morgan Roberts, organizational psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. She wrote the Big Idea article, “Where Does DEI Go From Here?” You can find it at hbr.org.
And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.