An Inclusion Habit Encourages Awareness and Enables Psychological Safety

Members of MITRE’s Multicultural Employee Resource Group celebrate Hispanic heritage at Luzia a Cirque du Soleil show inspired by the richness of the Mexican culture.  Photo used with permission.

Author: Dr. Asma Abuzaakouk

What is the business value of inclusion and diversity in the workplace?

Starbucks and Google are just two of the many organizations that have pursued active inclusion and diversity practices with expected business benefits. Evidence that fostering an inclusive workplace has value for an organization and its employees comes from research that highlights the positive and negative consequences of inclusion and diversity. On the positive side, inclusive workplaces build self- and social awareness among employees. Self-awareness is important because understanding ourselves and each other more intentionally helps manage our biases (Goleman, 2017).  When employees feel included, they are more inclined to share ideas, be open to receiving feedback, listen to the ideas and opinions of others, and espouse pro-social behavior (Cox, et al., 2016; Edmondson, 1999). On the negative side, research indicates that underrepresented minority groups who feel excluded experience higher levels of workplace anxiety and emotional distress; this translates into disengagement, attrition, and sometimes even physical harm. These behavioral impacts have economic implications: losses in productivity have been estimated at $550 billion a year (Gallup 2013).

What does an inclusive workplace look and feel like?

Inclusive workplaces pay attention to a wide range of differences in people, from the most apparent differences like gender, race, culture, and religion, to less obvious differences among us, like thought and emotional diversity, management and leadership skills, communication styles, etc.

At MITRE, we have implemented recommended practices and shared lessons learned, from having group discussions about inclusion and diversity, to implementing bias management training. These efforts are part of our commitment to a diversity pledge that is intended to build a trusting workplace.

Steps to helping companies evolve a more inclusive culture

Employee councils are one example of an inclusive practice that MITRE and other organizations have established successfully.  We believe that when our employees are emotionally connected, they are engaged and perform better (Cox et al., 2016). MITRE’s own employee council community supports diversity awareness and understanding about topics and issues relating to gender, sexual orientation, multi-generations, accessibility, STEM, and Veterans. We offer a safe space for underrepresented groups to celebrate their identities together with the organization and build people’s capacity for empathy and compassion through outreach, engagement, training, and development initiatives. We create psychological safety through solidarity and connectedness.

One outcome from our councils has been a member-driven effort to help MITRE recruit talent at events that celebrate underrepresented groups. Our activities have increased the diversity of MITRE’s pool of talent candidates. In June 2018, for example, MITRE’s Pride Council, which brings together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, questioning people (LGBTQ+) and their allies, recruited at the Capital Pride and Nashua Pride festivals. Willow Woycke, the Pride Council’s chair, heard statements such as “I didn’t know MITRE was inclusive.” And when festival participants saw MITRE recruiting at this event, they began to consider MITRE as an employer of choice.

A month earlier, MITRE’s Multicultural Employee Resource Group (MERG) Council, which brings together employees from diverse cultures, attended the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Mixer and Gala in Washington, DC, to recruit talent. The MERG Council helped MITRE obtain over 60 resumes of potential candidates and supported phone screening and interviews. These councils and groups, which are mostly volunteer led, represent MITRE’s commitment to creating an environment in which employees and teams thrive, share, and learn from each other.

The key to inclusion is psychological safety

Psychological safety is a key to innovation, which relies on diversity of thought. That is why diversity is integral to MITRE’s mission to operate federally funded research and development centers. Research and leading practices highlight the importance of promoting awareness of cognitive biases as a strategy to promote diversity of thought. Human brains take shortcuts when making decisions, especially when we are with people who seem like us; even if they are wrong, we will continue to often insist they are right. This tendency toward confirmation bias and similarity bias has evolved biologically and socially over time to protect us. We use it to distinguish in and out groups, and to survive socially. But these cognitive biases can inhibit the kind of careful, objective analysis that is integral to our work at MITRE. We need to adopt practices that help us manage these biases in our behavior, and organizations like ours need to create the routines and habits that make it happen. MITRE’s vision, to make the world a safer place, requires psychological safety and the awareness to manage bias not only in ourselves but also in our workplaces.

Stepping up to lead

At MITRE, we are explicitly focusing on inclusive skills such as emotional intelligence, particularly self- and social awareness. We regularly invite renowned authors and leaders in government and industry to share their experiences and train staff on inclusive practices in cognitive diversity, emotional intelligence, situational leadership styles, communications styles, and bias management. In recent years, studies in neuroscience have dominated our discourse. For example, the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI), with whom MITRE has partnered on diversity and inclusion, focuses on how to lead with the brain in mind.

In May 2018, I also delivered a class on the Neuroscience of Inclusion, to help employees understand themselves and others better; the connections between our bias, brain, and behaviors; and strategies for managing bias. Participants were asked to engage in a survey before and after the event. We found that the training made respondents more aware of their biases. In addition, it made me more aware of mine and of the implicit biases that are hidden in language.  

For example, I discovered that the term brown bag, which we’d used in the title of our luncheon training session, had negative historical implications. In the past, during the civil rights era in the United States, a brown paper bag was used to judge the color of a person’s skin to determine entry into a college fraternity and various social events. We thus began a campaign to change MITRE’s narrative and replace the term brown bag with lunch and learn. Simple changes in language can shift perceptions and behaviors and evolve MITRE’s culture for the better.

All it takes is a choice on our end. What effect do we want to have? A simple act like a smile can go a long way. Similarly, psychological safety and self- and social awareness create meaningful and innovative workplaces that are diverse, creative, inclusive, and productive. When we all feel included, we are safer and feel healthier. At the same time, we contribute to making the world a healthier and safer place. Inclusion begins with each and every one of us. Inclusion begin with I.

Just a Thought: Think about the energy that people take to pronounce a name. Although it often takes some time for people to pronounce my first and last names properly, I have learned to use my experiences as a strength. Because my name can isolate me, I intentionally engage with others to share stories about their names–and help them feel comfortable pronouncing mine. If you can’t pronounce someone’s name, ask them to pronounce it for you, be curious about what it means, and a new journey of shared experiences will almost always ensue.  


Cox, C., Davis, J., Rock, D., Inge, C., Grang, H., Sip, K., Grey, J., & Rock, L. (2016). The science of inclusion: How we can leverage the brain to build smarter teams. Neuroleadership Journal, 6, 1-16.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

Gallup (2013). State of the American Workplace. Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders.

Goleman, D. (2017). How to avoid confirmation bias at work? Mindful.

Rozovsky, J. (2015). The five keys to a successful Google team.

Schneider, M. (2017). Google Spent 2 Years Studying 180 Teams. The Most Successful Ones Shared These 5 Traits.

The Starbucks Channel (2018). The Third Place: Our Commitment, Renewed.

Dr. Asma Abuzaakouk is a Social and Behavioral Scientist and Strategic Management professional within MITRE’s Human and Organization Systems department and Enterprise Strategy and Transformation Technical Center. She is a thought leader who consults executive leaders on their organization change and transformation initiatives. Passionate about inclusion and diversity, she grew up as a first-generation immigrant, and is committed to learning and sharing leading inclusion and diversity practices.

© 2018 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 18-3184.

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