An Excerpt from Stumbling Toward Inclusion

Priya Nalkur

May 30, 2024


In her work with hundreds of companies and CEOs, Dr. Priya Nalkur has found that many leaders want to advance inclusion and equity in the workplace, but aren't sure how. Knowing that the stakes are high, leaders are afraid of messing up and saying the wrong thing. She has distilled her extensive coaching experience into a set of practical tools for navigating uncertain waters.

StumblingTowardInclusion.jpgThe manifestation of Stumbling Towards Inclusion begins with Priya Nalkur: a double immigrant and woman of color who has devoted her life to helping individuals become better inclusive leaders. Stumbling Towards Inclusion enables leaders from all walks of life to confront their stumbling blocks and work to become the leader they were meant to be.

Stumbling Towards Inclusion captures Priya’s drive and devotion to let others know why the mission of inclusion is so crucial in today’s often fraught environment. Within this journey is the practice of grace and forgiveness within oneself. Everyone has a unique path to become the leader they were destined to, and it is not a road that is always clear to the individual experiencing it firsthand. The first step is acknowledging that you’re ready to begin, and Stumbling Towards Inclusion holds your hand as you embark on this journey of understanding and inclusivity.

The excerpt below explains…

What Inclusive Leaders Need To Know About Psychological Safety

One reason some companies now designate an officer of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is that the latter adds a crucial extra bit to the work of inclusion. Or perhaps it simply makes explicit and underscores an element that should already be implied by the first three terms. It is one thing to be included in the room, another to feel you have a seat—an equal seat—at the table. But belonging goes a little further, a little deeper. It is about being fully welcomed.

About being valued, not just for what you do, but for who you are. This sense of belonging, animated by a critical bond of trust, has come to be known as psychological safety. This is the freedom to be your authentic self at work, the feeling that your voice is respected and valued, and the permission to take risks. Research into this critical dynamic began, in more than one sense, with mistakes.

Organizational Behavior: A Hospital Case Study

As I suspect is already clear to you, the road to inclusive leadership is very much an imperfect one. It is full of potholes and speed bumps that we will step into or collide with. At times it will feel as though we have veered onto the shoulder or off the road altogether. We have to accept this as the ebb and flow of the learning process. We have to give ourselves (and others) the grace to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to get better.

In the 1990s, Amy Edmondson was a PhD student at Harvard studying organizational behavior. She began visiting and studying hospital wards in the Boston area. Her hypothesis was that good teamwork and good medicine would go hand in hand. She developed a set of criteria by which she could assess the strength and cohesiveness of various teams. She looked at which teams were characterized by informal conversation among staff, team leaders who set clear goals, and an environment where conflicts were addressed openly. She measured individual satisfaction, happiness, and self-motivation.

She assumed that the units with the strongest sense of teamwork would have the lowest error rates. But in fact, the data told the opposite story. Was she herself making a mistake? She checked the data again. Then she looked more closely at the responses of individual nurses to certain questions. One question and set of responses jumped out at her: “If you make a mistake in this unit, will it be held against you?”

Edmondson had her aha moment. It wasn’t that staff on the strongest teams were making more errors. It was that they were comfortable reporting them. There was an additional wrinkle as well. On some strong teams that scored well on Edmondson’s initial measures of cohesion, nurses still didn’t feel comfortable admitting mistakes. It wasn’t cohesion within a team that mattered; it was the informal culture—a culture characterized by what she would come to call psychological safety.

Crucially, it wasn’t just about the informal culture among team members. It was also about leadership. One nurse sums up how both of these elements come together, “There is an unspoken rule here to help each other and check each other. People feel more willing to admit to errors here, because the nurse manager goes to bat for you.”

Inclusivity Leads to Psychological Safety

Recent research has only confirmed these conclusions. Psychological safety—which requires individuals, both team members and leaders, with strong interpersonal skills, such as emotional intelligence, and an organizational culture of trust and respect—is the key to high-performing teams. It is a major factor in employee satisfaction and well-being and in the ability of companies to attract and retain talent.

The role of psychological safety in inclusive leadership should be fairly obvious, but I’ll spell it out. Taking the chance to offer new ideas or try out new innovations that might not work out clearly requires a degree of professional risk. The nurses whom Amy Edmondson studied certainly took a great deal of risk in admitting errors in a setting where mistakes can have life or death consequences.

Yet there is a different (and in a sense more acute and intimate) risk in talking frankly and openly about privilege, bias, and exclusion, and about the subtleties in which racism, sexism, and homophobia play out. It takes great courage to drop your defenses and enter such conversations with total vulnerability. I see that courage in many workshops I lead. Think, for example, of the white man who acknowledges a growing awareness of biases he didn’t even know he had. Or the Asian woman articulating to her colleagues her pent-up frustration about years of slights and microaggressions, and about holding back her feelings because she didn’t want to appear weak or oversensitive.

These vulnerable moments are essential to building an inclusive organizational culture, and they don’t happen without a firm foundation of psychological safety. Psychological safety isn’t easy to build, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

The good news? The process of cultivating psychological safety will pay off in spades, in more ways than you can imagine. All of the leadership muscles you and your team members develop in pursuit of an inclusive culture will make you better leaders in general. If there are just a handful of big takeaways I wish you to draw from this book, one of them is this: the most inclusive leaders are the best leaders, period.

To put it another way: you will never achieve psychological safety in your organization without building an inclusive culture. There is no more rigorous method for cultivating psychological safety than the pursuit of inclusiveness.


Excerpted from Stumbling Towards Inclusion: Finding Grace in Imperfect Leadership.
Copyright © 2024 by … Nalkur.
Published by Amplify Publishing.
All rights reserved.


About the Author

Dr. Priya Nalkur is the president of the RoundTable Institute, a research and coaching firm dedicated to developing inclusive leaders, communities, and workplaces.

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