Lip Service is a Disservice
Before we can even get into the meat of what it takes to cultivate psychological safety at work, before we can enact steps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in a real way, we have to get very honest with ourselves, which can be VERY uncomfortable: are we putting systems into place just to placate? Or are we putting our money where our mouth is?
Google's AI chief Jeff Dean got caught in a trap of his own hypocrisy when taking a stab at the former. According to this story on Insider, Dean tweeted an invitation for students from "historically marginalized groups" to apply for mentorship at Google AI, mere months after unceremoniously pink-slipping two women for calling out the implicit bias present in AI. "Dean hit the headlines in December 2020 following a public fallout with the company's ethical AI co-lead Timnit Gebru, a Black woman, who claims she was fired after co-authoring a paper on the risks for the tech to reproduce human biases. Her team leader, Margaret Mitchell, was ousted two months later. (For a deeper dive into the research behind AI bias, listen to this episode of our podcast What's Betwixt Us, featuring AI ethicist and criminal psychologist Renée Cummings.)
As you can imagine, the backlash on social media was explosive. Dean deleted his PR stunt, replacing it with more neutral tweets, but it was too late. The damage of outing himself as a leader taking an unflattering shortcut was done.
As our founder Jumana Abu-Ghazaleh wrote recently for LinkedIn, psychological safety is not a "quick fix" kind of problem: it requires dedicated development and consistency over time. You wouldn't pour your heart out to a stranger; there must be a foundation of trust in place first. Similarly, pretending to a public population of twitter users that your company prioritizes psychological safety while saying something entirely different out of the private-facing side of your mouth is a bad look. It can only erode trust, and trample any remnants of psychological safety.
Google can do better. Modern workplaces can do better. We have the technology to streamline almost everything, but ethical soundness is an organic compound that can't be outsourced or disseminated via press release: that call is coming from inside the house.