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Amid economic uncertainty, corporate belt-tightening, and efforts to dismantle diversity efforts through both court rulings and legislation, the push for diversity, equity, and inclusion has slowed. The author, a researcher in positive psychology and diversity and inclusion, argues that to bring advocates and critics of diversity together, leaders must orient around a broader goal: creating the conditions for all workers to flourish. Given the high rates of disengagement and burnout, especially for those in historically marginalized groups, companies need a new approach. The author argues for fostering four freedoms at work: the freedom to be, the freedom to become, the freedom to fade, and the freedom to fail. Currently the four are unevenly distributed, but interventions such as encouraging individual allyship, implementing strengths-based development programs, and enabling flexible work can make organizations safer and more welcoming for all.
In the summer of 2020, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and pandemic inequities, organizations in the United States and around the world committed to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their ranks. Today, however, amid economic uncertainty, corporate belt-tightening, and virulent campaigns to dismantle diversity efforts through both court rulings and legislation, the push for DEI has slowed. Now more than ever, it’s time for companies to recommit.
To bring advocates and critics of this work together, leaders must orient around a broader goal: creating the conditions for all workers to flourish. Data on employee engagement underscores this challenge for organizations. Gallup estimates that 77% of employees are unengaged at work and reports that worker stress is at a historic high, costing the global economy $8.8 trillion. Union organizing across U.S. industries is highlighting the fact that many workers feel exploited or undervalued. Tens of millions of employees in the U.S. and more around the world switched jobs in the Great Resignation, and many others are quiet quitting or burning out. These kinds of trends lead to higher hiring costs and poorer performance, specifically diminished creativity and innovation. And there is evidence that those in historically marginalized groups are even less engaged than their dominant-group counterparts are.
In the past, corporate attempts to boost employee well-being have ranged from ping-pong tables to job crafting. But employers need to take a new tack that addresses the root of so many issues facing workers today. My research in the fields of positive psychology and diversity and inclusion leads me to believe that to truly engage each and every employee, and to help them feel validated and rewarded, organizations need to cultivate four freedoms that allow people to bring their full humanity to work.
The four freedoms that generate flourishing at work are: being our authentic selves, becoming our best selves, occasionally fading into the background, and failing in ways that help us and our teams learn. While everyone can benefit from more freedom at work, these four are unevenly distributed. Majority and high-status group members often (though not always) have access to them and often (though not always) take them for granted. Meanwhile, for many in traditionally marginalized groups — people of color, women, those who are gender nonconforming, people with physical disabilities, and those who are experiencing mental health challenges, for example — the struggle for liberation is contested daily.
To be sure, it can feel strange to talk about freedom in the context of the workplace, but it shouldn’t. Around the world there is a history of forced labor, from the enslavement of humans on plantations to laborers in sweatshops, apartheid-era mines, or even Taylorist assembly lines. In many industries and parts of the world, people still work in such oppressive conditions. Even in the modern knowledge economy, employees struggle with fears — of failure, lack of safety, and scarcity of resources and opportunities — that undermine their feelings of freedom at work and negatively impact their performance and well-being.
By contrast, companies that have worked to make the four freedoms accessible — through structural changes such as policies and resource allocation, cultural shifts, and individual development — have seen enhanced productivity and increased feelings of satisfaction and safety among employees, particularly those in historically marginalized groups.
The fact is, liberating workers is not a zero-sum game; granting freedoms to one group does not inherently take them away from another. The collective pursuit of the four freedoms thus benefits everyone, as well as the business itself.
The Freedom to Be
We all flourish when we are granted the freedom to be our authentic selves at work. Consider, for example, the affirmation many people felt from colleagues when getting to know one another’s pets and families through video calls during pandemic lockdowns. Being oneself at work may sound simple, but people who have the most affinity with the dominant culture often benefit from similarity and take this freedom for granted.
Those in historically marginalized groups, however, often lack that freedom and must expend significant effort on calibrating their authentic selves to fit into their surroundings. For example, racial minority group members often “whiten” their names on job applications by replacing ethnic-sounding names with initials or shortened nicknames; research has shown that this can improve their chances of a callback. Pregnant women hide their status to avoid stigmas and penalties. Other people avoid disclosing their parental status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, religion, or mental health issues. The latter is acute, for example, in Singapore, where surveys suggest that 62% of employees say they are unwilling to share their mental health challenges with colleagues or managers. Other employees might modify their speech or appearance to fit into their workplaces, such as by speaking a different vernacular language than they would at home or straightening their hair to fit the dominant model of professionalism.