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Psychological safety is crucial to diversity and inclusion

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Given that I joined Leeds Trinity University as vice-chancellor last November, in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s fair to say that there have been some unique challenges to overcome.

I immediately recognised my responsibility as a leader to ensure that the university was fully Covid secure, while engaging with our community – staff, students and wider stakeholders – to prioritise their safety and listen to their views. Due to restrictions, I was unable to meet as many people face to face as I would have liked during the first few months, but I used this time to really reflect on how I could best navigate the university and our community through the pandemic.

Developing relationships and building trust as a leader without being physically present on campus is certainly not something I’m used to. However, I believe that authentic leadership allows communication to feel genuine, open and honest, even if your colleagues aren’t seeing you in person.

From the very beginning of my tenure, I focused on being as visible as possible. I established Microsoft Teams meetings with all university departments to provide my colleagues with the opportunity to share their feelings and ask questions, allowing me to provide immediate updates. I also used these meetings to express my gratitude to colleagues for their hard work and resilience. This approach allowed me quickly to get to the heart of the challenges faced by Leeds Trinity and devise strategies to mitigate their impact, support cross-institutional collaboration and make people aware of the policy changes affecting UK universities during the pandemic.

Effective communication permeates the university’s entire leadership structure. Speaking is, of course, a key component of communication, but we should not overlook the importance of active listening. For me, part of what makes a good leader is a willingness and ability to adapt your leadership style both to the circumstances and to what you think will work best. In not making time to listen to the concerns of your colleagues, you deprive yourself of the insights that allow you to shape the ways in which you engage with them.

Active listening has also been an integral part of my role because of the real fears and anxieties experienced around the pandemic. I have therefore sought to lead compassionately. My goal was to empower colleagues at a leadership level and provide them with the confidence and the space to lead in ways they too felt would be most beneficial to their teams and areas of operation.

With or without a pandemic, our priority as a university is to support, nurture and include everyone in our community, and I have been guided by the notion of psychological safety. As an institution, we sought to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable promoting and discussing ideas, asking questions and offering challenges, without fear of reprimand or repercussion. It is this thinking that underlies a number of recent initiatives relating to race equality, including a virtual live event with Leeds Trinity staff, students and alumni on Black Lives Matter, which put the emphasis on accountability, transparency and action.

This event focused on giving Black staff, students and alumni space to talk authentically and without censorship. Hearing about the microaggressions and racial abuse that our Black students had experienced was uncomfortable and upsetting, highlighting the challenges that we have to contend with in order to achieve race equality and promote inclusion. From my own experiences of racism, I recognise the efforts already made by the university, such as achieving the Race Equality Charter bronze award, but I am also acutely aware of how much work we still have to do.

Our ethos at Leeds Trinity is that our students are a name, not a number. We want to create an inclusive environment for everyone to work in, meaningfully contribute and feel that their voices are being heard. To support this ethos and make a positive impact on our learning community, I have recently overseen the creation of an Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). One of the first of its kind in the UK, the office sits outside human resources and is designed to establish a fairer, inclusive environment. I will work closely with the director to examine all university policies and practices through the lens of equality, diversity and inclusion, support staff and students in these matters, and develop appropriate training.

With the establishment of both the OIE and the university’s new five-year strategy, we hope to become an example of best practice for other universities across the UK, ensuring that every member of our community sees themselves reflected in its strategic direction.

Charles Egbu is vice-chancellor of Leeds Trinity University.

This content was originally published here.

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