Truth telling, authenticity, and psychological safety


Over the past week I have had some fascinating and sometimes challenging conversations. They were not all about disability or inclusion. But they were all about personal authenticity, the presumption of knowledge and rectitude, and the creation of psychological safety.

Some conversations concerned the failure of ostensibly supported actions to manifest as outcome focused activity. Two things seemed to be happening. One is that people were saying things expected of them but acted as if they personally believed a contrary thing. The other is people in positions of power and influence were interpreting the lived experience of others in ways not shared by the experiencer.

These apparent contradictions have become baked into the way things are done. The personally held belief may be shared by colleagues, as is the reinterpretation of the lived experience. The result is that inauthentic words and actions are afforded a gloss of acceptability because there is an appearance of conformity with required sentiment.

In the politics of inclusion this situation is often experienced by those seeking inclusion. They hear the words, which sound good. They see initial actions, which appear to be heading in the right direction – and then nothing meaningful happens.

Not everybody really agrees

One of the things that has been intriguing me over the past year or so, as I immersed myself in the field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), is that it should be really apparent that beyond the pressure to be PC a lot of people really do not agree that DEI merits the level of commitment that its proponents demand. But they can’t say that openly. So, they act as if they do agree – and then undermine efforts at change.

This is okay. At least that’s honest. But why not say so up front? That would be suicidal for a person’s career. The demand for good DEI outcomes has created a kind of paradoxical tyranny which forces dissent underground. That’s a problem – because this dissent is so often expressed by people in power positions.

The reader might be puzzled by this assertion. But here’s the reality. There is a surface appearance of pro DEI sentiment – which may be thoroughly genuine in the majority. But if that’s the case, how do we account for the apparent ineptitude in turning that goodwill into powerful and positive outcomes?

I have argued that Inclusion is complex and difficult – but not so much that it takes year after year of things not happening despite efforts to bring about positive changes. I have argued that there are people in power positions who elect to exempt themselves from agreed standards of behaviour – bullying is the best/worst example.

The reality is that some folk, for whatever reasons, do not agree with the full spectrum of DEI goals. They will not say so openly, but their actions tell the real story.

How can you make a situation psychologically safe for a dissenter – and should you?

A few years ago, I was in a meeting on figuring out ways to increase the representation of people with disability in roles within the department. I suggested identified roles. The response was not enthusiastic. In fact, I detected a sense of alarm. I wanted to discuss, but nobody else did and the matter was closed out.

I understood the concerns and objections, and I wanted to explore them. It was an option we had to explore. What was interesting was that I could not get a conversation going, beyond a few vague expressions of doubt. 

What was the problem? It was saying no to identified positions looked like saying no to people with disability – and nobody wanted to be seen to be doing that. The answer was to make the problem go away by pretending it wasn’t there – and by promising to ‘look into’the matter and not getting around to it. This is a popular tactic. It works very well. Nobody has said “No.” But they have deftly ensured that “Yes.” won’t happen.

Here’s my position now, as a person with disability. If I want to claim the right to psychological safety to tell my story and bring my whole self to work, why would I want to create an environment in which another person cannot have the same right?

I have a personal commitment to DEI. But I have to acknowledge that I have self-righteously excluded people I disagree with. Diversity must include dissenters. Disagreeing is one thing. Refusing to have a conversation is another. Making conversations or meetings not psychologically safe for them to express their dissent is not inclusive. It is not equitable. It is not just.

Cultures, communities, and organisations have a duty to set the standards of conduct and values by which they function. We have done this by declaring the DEI principles are esteemed. But we may not declare that there is only one standard, a line drawn in the sand, by which all responses are assessed.

Getting to where we want to be

We are a diverse and uneven lot. Even if we are in favour of something our response will not be uniform. I was in favour of not smoking, but I couldn’t quit. There were times when even cutting down was hard.

In the spectrum of diversity there are many reasons why not everybody is equally supportive of every proposition. Should we not allow those who might favour a proposition to some extent express their reservations, doubts, fears? To insist that dissenters have no valid voice is to do exactly what we have objected to. We do not gain our voice by denying others theirs.

Too often in this age of social media dissenters are abused by self-righteous mobbers. It is an unforgiving spirit to demand respect for one’s own position by denying any dissent as morally and intellectually deficient.

This is a problem with moral causes. Those who assert they are on firm ground insist, wrongly, that being there is virtuous, rather than fortuitous. They also insist that those not standing with them are against them. Also, not true. I stood with anti-smokers in spirit, but I could not join them in the flesh.

We are all going in the same direction, at different rates, and some walking straight while others meander or grope their way in a shared direction. A few haven’t moved much at all. Perhaps they have a disability?

The errors of passionate advocacy

Undermining agreed actions is not a good thing. But if it’s a code for not feeling psychologically safe to dissent that makes the ‘good’ the oppressors. A self-perception that one is in the right can quickly turn an advocate into a psychological bully.

People who hold nuanced views on topics they largely agree with will be silent in face of strong moral heat from an advocate. When faced with the ‘all in or all out’ option a person holding a more subtle position may be forced to an ‘all in’ posture to signal broad support. But they will push for a more nuanced response out of sight. They can be accused of betraying ‘the cause’ when all they are doing is applying insight and maybe wisdom. True, some do betray the good intent they express. But they are few.

This creates a disastrous situation. The nuanced vision may be the best way of moving forward for a range of pragmatic reasons. But there’s no way of exploring it and refining it with the critical stakeholders. The opportunity for honest conversation is shut down because an advocate is perceived to be uncompromisingly unwilling to hear a nuanced point of view.

Of course, there are other interpretations. The nuanced position may in fact be a form of dissent that is not just. But that makes the need for honest conversation more compelling.

Passionate advocates may be justly aggrieved. But the heat of their personal feelings may also blind them to the complexities of their cause. Nuanced supporters maybe misguided in reservations because they are unaware of the realities of lived experience.

It can be that nobody in a stakeholder group (power holders, decision makers, service providers or service recipients) knows enough to understand motives, means, needs, or risks, to have an overview – a shared vision. Such a group will talk internally, but only openly with those who share their positions – not as a whole. 

The opportunity for open and honest conversation cannot be grasped until there is a capacity for psychologically safe engagement. This includes the right to express grief and pain and the right to disagree or dissent.

It is harder for the advocate/service recipient/person with lived experience to be successful if their case is expressed with moral heat. Resolution of disagreement or dissent can come only from ‘giving permission’ for disagreement or dissent to be expressed safely.


Good intent comes in degrees and is mostly unschooled. It must be nurtured. Advocates for the dispossessed and disempowered can see themselves as ‘social justice warriors’ or as gardeners. This was brought home to me recently as I was reading Paul Callaghan’s The Dreaming Path. Paul is a Worimi man with a diverse professional background who now runs Callaghan Cultural ConsultancyWorimi country extends from Foster/Tuncurry south to Port Stephens on the New South Wales coast.

In the Dreaming Path Paul alludes to an idea I have encountered in other Indigenous cultures – that Europeans are ‘little brothers’ relative to those whose ways have been established many millennia. Youth is a dangerous period. It is the most violent period. There is a lot of energetic pride and ignorance. The best of intents can be ineffectual or even harmful. Those we oppose may be innocently causing grief – a situation not remedied by passion or anger.

When I became DEN Chair in November 2016, I committed to an approach I described as being relentlessly positive and professional. Talking truth to power was only part of the equation. Listening to power talking truth back was also essential. Getting it to talk back honestly was difficult.

Power isn’t the enemy and seeking redress for past wrongs is not the cause. We are all on the same side (aside from a very few). We have, in a sense, a common enemy – silence. That exists when there is no psychologically safe relationship that can accommodate advocacy and disagreement – real truths, not the masks we think we must wear.

I have had time these days to catch up books in my must read one day pile. One such was Waldon by Henry David Thoreau. It is an extraordinarily beautiful book by a poet philosopher of incomparable spirit. In the book Thoreau described human progress not as a battleline of soldiers advancing but more like a community streaming to church on a Sunday morning. He noted elsewhere “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

In the context of DEI, we must allow that we are going in the same direction but not at the same pace and with the same intent or understanding. For advocates of DEI, regardless of their specific cause, the challenge is to nurture that progress for each person or group we want to influence. We can do that only by enabling and fostering truth telling through personal authenticity in an atmosphere of psychological safety.

This is not easy. It takes effort, courage, and (as I continue to discover) constant rethinking of what we imagine to be so.

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