• Client Talk

The role of coaches in supporting diversity and inclusion

Claire Rason


Improving Diversity and Inclusion in professional services firms is a complex issue that requires a myriad of solutions and approaches. I believe that it is important for coaching to be part of that solution.


Systemic problems need systemic solutions.

I have seen this statement in many different contexts. It is starting to be discussed in the context of diversity and inclusion as many firms think about how best to create cultures where everyone belongs and as the realisation of the degree of complexity in succeeding in D&I broadens.


The first time I came across this statement was in the context of systemic coaching. Systemic coaching, as with coaching itself, suffers from having many definitions and from being adopted by people who haven’t really studied it but who use it to describe their approach.


Systemic coaching can be a way to coach a team. It can also be a way to coach an individual. It is about looking beyond the individual coach-coachee relationship and understanding the systemic context in which that individual sits. It avoids simplistic solutions that don’t work in the environment in which they are to be applied. This is the first reason why systemic coaching can help support D&I initiatives.


The second why systemic coaching can support D&I initiatives is because it requires “wide-angled empathy”. This is the need to have more than two chairs in the room and to have as much compassion for the others in the story as for the coachee. This is the first step towards working systemically and to coaching the connections as well as the parts (Peter Hawkins). The idea of wide-angled empathy is critical if D&I initiatives are to succeed because it expands empathy as far as it can go and I believe that empathy has to be part of the solution.


It is not just systemic coaching that can help with D&I initiatives though, there are also some basic coaching skills which can also help firms on their D&I journey.


What challenges can coaching help firms to meet?


Psychological Safety


Psychological safety is another term that is often used in every day parlance. Again, it is one of those terms where the deeper you dig the more you realise that there is more to it than meets the eye. It matters. There are studies which show a threat to someone’s psychological safety can have the same impact on the brain as a punch to the face.


Amy Edmondson, a Harvard professor credited for introducing the concept of team psychological safety, offers some insight into what it is when she says:


“Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.”

All team coaches (and individual coaches too) know the importance of creating an environment of trust. It often forms the starting point for a coaching journey.


For diversity and inclusion initiatives to flourish, it is key that psychological safety exists in firms. All too often I read about junior team members who are afraid to challenge the status quo. This goes beyond diversity but it points to a culture where any type of change initiative is going to fall at the first hurdle. With D&I initiatives psychological safety is paramount for the right conversations to happen and for everyone to buy into the solutions that are offered.


Signs that might indicate that psychological safety needs strengthening in your firm:

  • The first sign is one that I have already mentioned: team members are afraid to challenge. Those in charge might not realise that people are afraid to challenge, it goes without saying they won’t say so! So, what other signs might leaders look for?

  • In meetings does everyone have roughly the same air time, or does it tend to be the leaders who do most of the talking? If the latter, you might have an issue with psychological safety.

  • Is feedback readily offered in the organisation (up as well as down)? If not then you might have an issue.

  • Do employees only share professional exchanges and know little about the personal side of the people they work with? The more you know and share with colleagues, the more likely psychological safety is present.

  • Do teams avoid difficult questions or challenging conversations? If they do, then conversations about diversity and inclusion won’t reach the depth that they need to.


Amygdala hijack


When your psychological safety feels threatened your primitive brain kicks in. This is what is responsible for the “fight or flight” mode that many will have heard of. It happens under times of stress too. We need to be able to slow down our thinking when this happens, for which we need to recognise what is happening.


This is something that rears its head with some of the difficult conversations that are needed with diversity and inclusion, where certain employees might feel threatened and as a consequence fail to support initiatives fully. It is an aspect where coaching can help. Coaching, in particular team coaching, can help foster an environment where hard conversations are had without leading to individuals feeling threatened.


The ability to argue


Another sign that often points to a lack of psychological safety is where teams don’t argue. This sounds strange, but where teams have true diversity of thought, different points of view are offered. There is challenge. I don’t mean blazing rows here, I means differences can be aired and are worked through without threating anyone’s position or role.


Diversity of thought and psychological safety aren’t the same thing, but you need the latter for the former to prosper. Where you have diverse thinking you will hear different points of view in meetings, in the corridors, when solving client problems. Junior members of the team won’t be afraid to offer an opinion which challenges the accepted wisdom.


How often in a meeting are differing viewpoints offered?

Unsure? In your next meeting take note of how many people challenge or question. Has the passage of time, the pool from which talent was originally drawn, and the same sector experience that everyone has, led to everyone thinking in broadly the same way?


An example of diverse thinking, that I encountered in my career, brought home to me that this is often the exception rather than the rule in professional services firms. I hired someone into my team who had never been in professional services. I hired them into a professional services firm because of the specific technical experience they brought, not because of the professional services experience they had (after all, there was plenty of that in the team already).


This person constantly challenged and questioned why things where done a certain way. The temptation to reply “that’s how you do things in a law firm” popped into my head more than once. But those questions that as a leader make you feel slightly uncomfortable and force you to ask yourself “why” are incredibly powerful. A good coach will do that for you, but having it within your team is to be cherished. As a leader you need to let your team members challenge you and not take it personally when they do.


How many times have you had to challenge a view that you have held for a long time? How many times has the status quo in your firm been called into question? If the answer to either of those is “not many”, then you might need to think again about what challenges aren’t being aired and why.

This is where team coaches come into their own. They can support teams to challenge without harming the psychological safety that exists, but rather do so in a way that actually builds more of it. They can identify where you might have a problem in the first place. This has benefits outside of D&I, but D&I initiatives are a huge beneficiary of this approach.


The need to listen


There are many different types of coaches. One skill that unites them all is that they are trained to listen. To the coachee. To the team they are working with. To the spaces between these. To what is said and unsaid. This skill is something that is needed in bucketloads when you approach Diversity & Inclusion.


How do you know whether people feel like they belong in your organization? Yes, you can conduct a survey, but this won’t get under the skin of the answers. It won’t hear what isn’t being said.

Are the initiatives you are taking working? Why? Again, the only real way to know is to ask.


All too often we conduct client listening exercises but fail to listen to the people who matter most in our firms, our employees. Whether you use trained listeners external to your organization, or whether you train employees internally to listen, the time spent on this exercise is perhaps the most simple yet most effective action that can be taken to enhance belonging in your firm. It can identify some of the systemic challenges that every professional services firm needs to solve and it can provide insight into how to solve these challenges.


To find out how Client Talk’s diverse team of coaches can help your firm work towards tackling its D&I challenge, get in touch. We fundamentally believe that every firm needs to be on this journey and for that reason we are willing to give our time to discuss this issue with you, no obligation, no catches, no charge. What are you waiting for?