Trust as the foundation for successful DE&I work
As featured in LDIA Magazine, Issue 5 - March 2023. LDIA (Legal Diversity & Inclusion Alliance) is a cross-firm alliance in Belgium that works to eliminate workplace discrimination and promote an inclusive organisational culture in the legal sector.
Imagine teaching someone to ride a bicycle. You explain how it works, give a demonstration, then invite your student to try. Through the process of trial and error that follows, you offer encouragement ("You can do it!"), guidance ("Apply pressure on both brakes"), and hands-on support. Finally they master the skill and ride unaccompanied.
Mutual trust underpins this interaction. You trust that your student is capable of putting in the hard work to succeed. Your student trusts that you can effectively teach this skill and won’t expose them to unnecessary harm while doing so. And importantly, they trust you to honor your commitments. You said you would steady the bike when it wobbles, and you do every time.
Embarking on a DE&I journey is like inviting people to learn to ride a bike. It involves acquiring new skills and interacting with the environment differently. Learning about inclusive behaviors and adopting them as their own. Transforming from pedestrian to cyclist. It's a challenging process that won't happen if individuals don't trust that leaders are capable of cycling themselves and willing to change the status quo.
'Trust is the currency of change'
In DEI Deconstructed, DE&I strategist Lily Zheng’s new book, they position trust as central to enabling stakeholders at every level in an organization to become effective change-makers. They propose three categories of trust: high, medium, low. In a high-trust environment, trust is an abundant resource. Leaders can set the agenda and generally expect colleagues to buy in without fuss. Conversely, leaders in medium-trust environments need to prove their credibility, for instance by setting up collaborations with colleagues who hold less formal power to jointly define and work towards DE&I objectives and work towards them.
In low-trust environments change is almost impossible; leaders should focus on increasing the trust level to medium as a first priority. Zheng recommends empowering colleagues with less formal power to take the lead and trigger bottom-up change.
Not sure where your organization falls on the trust scale? Gather quantitative and qualitative data from stakeholders (internal and external) then analyze it to get objective insights. Armed with this, you can determine how best to achieve the outcomes you want.
How does psychological safety link to this?
Psychological safety is defined as a shared belief within a team that it is safe to take interpersonal risks. In other words, it's the measure of how comfortable people are doing things like asking questions and voicing discontent. Also, whether people reasonably believe that mistakes and expressing a different opinion won't be held against them.
If trust is the foundation of successful DE&I work, psychological safety is the foundation for trust. When there is psychological safety people can afford to trust leaders - and each other - and reasonably expect that doing so will result in positive outcomes. And because they feel safe to communicate how they truly feel, take risks, and propose ideas, leaders have the input they need to identify solutions that are fit for purpose. They also have the right conditions to support innovation.
'Achieving DEI in any form requires a strategy that dismantles historical inequities and meets people's unique needs, building, leveraging, and maintaining stakeholder trust.' Lily Zheng, DEI Deconstructed
Trust is fragile, requiring consistent effort to build and one wrong move to shatter. It is also a finite resource: a high-trust environment can easily slip into low-trust territory when trust is broken again and again without being renewed.
So if you want to create change in your organization, make earning stakeholders' trust a priority. And once you've earned it, hold on to it wisely.