February 9, 2022

You Can Be Yourself Here: DDS Dobson-Smith

Does your company or organization have trouble attracting and retaining people from diverse and underrepresented communities? Does your organizational culture suffer from low morale, exclusive cliques, or microaggressions you don’t know how to address? The new book, You Can Be Yourself Here, lays out the deep psychology of our need to belong, its critical impact on workplace performance, and the practical steps any organization can take to make everyone feel welcome and included.

Learn how diversity and representation can lead to a greater experience of belonging for everyone. Clean insights from interviews with real employees, speaking openly about their workplace experiences. Discover how to facilitate a culture of belonging with practical tips for creating inclusive workplaces where people can show up as themselves. If you are a founder, leader, or HR practitioner who wants all your employees to feel welcomed and fully included at work, You Can Be Yourself Here provides the tools you need to start making that shift today. 

This is the Author Hour podcast and I’m your host, Frank Garza. Today, I’m joined by DDS Dobson-Smith, author of a brand-new book, You Can Be Yourself Here: Your Pocket Guide to Creating Inclusive Workplaces by Using the Psychology of Belonging.

DDS Dobson-Smith, welcome to the show.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Great, thank you. It’s great to be here.

Frank Garza: To kick things off, could you please give us a brief summary of your background and how that led to you writing this new book?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Oh my word, a brief summary of a background of a 48-year-old person.

Frank Garza: It doesn’t have to be so brief, no pressure.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah, goodness me. Where to start? I think I spent the first 25 years of my career working in corporates, in various learning and development org psych org development roles from up to board and C-Suite level across a range of sectors in both domestic and global roles. Primarily focused and certainly in the second half of my career or second half of the 25 years, focusing on corporate culture and climate — and I make a distinction between culture and climate, which I’m happy to get into if you’d like to.

Really thinking about the extent to which people can come into work and really be themselves so that they are freed up to do great work. What I mean by that is, I think oftentimes, we can go into places, particularly workplaces, and cover aspects of our personality, our background, our behavior, we condemn ourselves down. We can suppress aspects of who we are in order to fit in because the desire, the need to fit in and to belong, I believe is so primal in us as human beings and I think that dumbing down that covering, that suppressing, takes an inordinate amount of energy to be able to maintain a “work me” and a “not work me” as an example and I believe the energy that it takes to maintain that split.

If we didn’t have to maintain that split, then that energy would be available and would free us up to be able to focus wholly and solely on our work and our relationships at work and therefore, our performance would improve. I very much focused on a lot of that in my roles in the corporate world and kind of overlay onto that as a psychotherapist, I have done a lot of work in the space of social justice and really spending a lot of time working with people who hold historically disempowered and marginalized identities and the impact that that has on us as individuals and the extent to which we do cover those aspects of our identity in order to fit in.

I think it’s a clash of two worlds really — or a blend of two worlds, rather than a clash — of my corporate background and my background as a psychotherapist and working in social justice spaces that ultimately brought us to this book. 

Inclusion Is Something We Do, Belonging Is an Experience

Frank Garza: In the book, you share your own personal story about belonging and you mentioned that the first time you felt like you belonged was when you were working at this British retailer called Marks & Spencer and the store manager pulled you aside and told you something. Would you mind sharing more about that story?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Oh goodness me. Just as you’ve brought that up, I noticed that my eyes started to fill with tears. As a queer kid growing up, it was hard to find my people. It was hard to find a space in which I could really be myself and spent my school days and even my early workdays were spent trying to be someone else, trying to be not queer, trying to fit in. I think ultimately, this boss of mine, interestingly, a straight, white, cisgender man called Paul, Paul Smith, noticed in me that I was perhaps not, I don’t know, I was trying to be something that I wasn’t, someone who I wasn’t. He noticed that and said, “You know, DDS Dobson-Smith, I see you and I think there’s something going on for you. I don’t know what it is but I’d like to help you.”

“I’d like to help you find out who you are.” I was 24 at that time and this – 24 years ago, I think it was a real turning point for me because Paul found a budget from somewhere to help pay for company-sponsored therapy sessions. It was the first time that I went into therapy and started really that soul searching that being in therapy often requires and really starting to come to a place of accepting who I was and loving who I was rather than trying to be somebody who I wasn’t so that other people would love and accept a version of me that I thought they wanted to love and accept, rather than have people love and accept a version of me that I wanted to love and accept.

Frank Garza: Thank you for sharing that, that’s such a powerful story about how a maybe seemingly small gesture from somebody can have such a big impact on somebody else. When you wrote this book, who did you write this book for? Who is the target audience in your mind as you wrote this book?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Well, the target audience for me, when I was writing it, was very much for CEOs, chief talent officers, chief people officers, founders, leaders of businesses to really help them to think through the importance of belonging and how that is going to impact the workplace but also, to make a distinction between diversity and inclusion and belonging which are often said in the same breath almost as if it’s one word but actually, the three are very, very different.

That’s who was in my mind when I was writing it but something — just something fantastic happened. The other day, I was speaking to someone who had read an advance copy of the book, someone who I had never met and this person is not in HR, is not a CEO, is not an entrepreneur, is not a founder of the business, is somebody who is a human being who is making their way through life and with their own troubles and trials and tribulations like we all have as human beings — and he said to me that the book had, there was an aspect of the book that had really impacted him and brought about a new perspective that was releasing for him in a way.

There was something that happened for him that was — I say, releasing and I guess what I mean is, he found some peace and that — I don’t know. It just felt so joyful to me to hear that somebody had read something that I had written and that it had made a positive difference to them and that it was meaningful and significant to them. While the book was originally written for bit people, leaders of businesses and leaders of people functions, and so on, I think it’s certainly, if this sample of one is anything to go by, the book is for everyone. Everyone that is a human being that has struggled with feelings of belonging.

Frank Garza: You mentioned how a lot of people put those three words: diversity, inclusion, and belonging together but they each mean something very distinct. Can we just maybe start with defining what each of those three things are?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah, let me define them from my perspective. I appreciate that there are dictionary definitions and there are different definitions that other people will hold. I speak from my perspective, not from a universal perspective and when I think about diversity, I think about representation.

I think about; if I look around, do I find people around me who are like me and do I find people who are not like me, then there is diversity, then there is — I am represented and I am also not represented in the people around me. Both of those are important. 

When I say “When I look around, are there people like me?” I mean, from all of the different identity markers, the predominant identity markers that we as human beings carry and look for in other people, whether that is our race, our gender, our sex. I do make a differentiation between gender and sex, our sexuality, the extent to which we are — we have a disability or not, the color and lightness of our skin, and things like age as well.

To me, diversity is a fact. There either is or is not diversity. It is inarguable almost because it is factual. Inclusion is a behavior and so inclusion means, bringing people, potentially using aspects of your identity that carry power and privilege to be able to bring people in, to the table, make them be included or not, right?

It is an action. Inclusion is an action, it is a verb. It is something that we do. Then, belonging is an experience. Belonging is an internal experience, do I feel like I belong here? And we all have our own experiences of walking into places — the phrase, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” from The Wizard of Oz that you know, you can walk into a place and we can feel the vibe of a place whether that’s a workplace or whether it’s a social place or even when we’re walking through the door after work, although many of us haven’t actually left the house to go to work in recent years but even at home, we can sometimes feel belonging or not. 

It’s an internal experience of whether I feel like I belong here or not. Those are the definitions, that I use in the book of diversity, inclusion, and belonging and I talk about how you can’t have belonging if you don’t have inclusion. You can’t have inclusive behaviors if you don’t have diversity. Inclusion is a prerequisite for belonging and diversity is a prerequisite for inclusion but you can have diversity in the workplace and an absence of inclusive behaviors. 

Particularly — and I make a particular point around leadership — being members of the leadership team, whatever that means in an organization, being the primary factor of whether inclusion does or doesn’t exist. You can have diversity but that doesn’t always lead to inclusion, which doesn’t always lead to belonging. It’s an interesting equation, right? It works in the reverse but it doesn’t always work going forwards, if that makes sense.

Look To Add to Your Culture, Utilizing Differences to Push Progress Forward

Frank Garza: Yeah, it does. You talk about belonging being an experience. You also talk about how there are some metrics that can be used to measure how well a culture of belonging is being implemented in your organization. Could you share what some of those metrics are? 

DDS Dobson-Smith: I mean in my experience, the two most important metrics that we can focus on in a business when it comes to belonging is employee engagement. Some organizations call that happiness, some organizations call it employee advocacy but the extent to which employees are engaged in their work and in the organization. And then the other metric is attrition, so the extent to which people are churning through your organization. 

There is a correlation between those two metrics and so as engagement rises, so attrition falls and as attrition rises, you can probably see that there will be engagement falling. So there is so many in the world of employee experience, which I spent 25 years working and there are many, many metrics. We’re in, particularly in this day and age where data is queen, we can sometimes lose ourselves in the data. 

I would always encourage organizations, leaders, teams to take a close look at what it is that is driving engagement and what it is that is driving attrition and there is a really — it is really interesting at the moment. Around the world, we hear people talking about this phenomenon called the Great Resignation and I actually don’t think — and I don’t write about this in the book but — it is something that is very much on my mind at the moment. 

I don’t think it is a Great Resignation. I like to think of it as the Great Realization. I think through the pandemic — lots has happened as a result of the pandemic but I think principally, people have been asking themselves some fairly deep questions. As this relates to their professional roles, I think people have started to ask themselves, “Am I doing what I want to do?” Some people have said, “Yes, I am doing what I want to do” and some people have said, “Actually no, I’m not” and they maybe have done a career change, moved sectors, something like that. 

But the people that have said, “Yeah, actually I am. I am doing something that is in alignment with my purpose” have then gone on to ask themselves the questions, “Am I doing it where I want to do it? Is my employer supporting me in all and nurturing me in all of the ways that I want and need them to?” And I think a lot of people are starting to seek out places of work where they can find purpose, meaning, and belonging. 

I think that is what is causing this so-called Great Resignation. I think there were three — there was a huge uptick just last month in the number of quits in America. Like I [said], I don’t think — I don’t believe that there is a shortage of talent at the moment. What I think is the talent is just being more discerning in where they want to spend their time and I think belonging sits at the very root of all of that experience. 

Frank Garza: You dig into some strategies that people can use to address diversity and facilitate inclusion in the workplace and I’d love to just dig into a few of those in the “address diversity” category. There is one called “culture-add versus culture-fit interviewing”. Can you talk a little bit about what that is? 

DDS Dobson-Smith: So you know, in interview[ing], in recruitment and selection, oftentimes companies will check that you have the competence to be able to do the job as it is described. You have the skills and you have the experience and do you have the qualifications if appropriate, and then they will also be checking for culture fit. So they will check for does this person fit with who we are as an organization? and oftentimes, companies will use their values or even their behavioral competency frameworks to check culture fit. 

I think that is a very quick route to homogeneity. It’s a very quick way to create an organization full of the same people and therefore, it is not going to lead to diversity. I think the smarter organizations are the companies that are asking, “How is this person going to shake things up for us? What is this person going to bring that is unique and different that is going to help us in our strategic direction and our strategic goals? How is this person going to bring innovation, different thinking, different perspectives into this team, into our organization?” 

That’s what I think about culture-add, it’s the idea of not looking for sameness but looking for difference. 

Frank Garza: What are safe rooms and brave spaces? That’s one of the strategies you have for facilitating inclusion. 

DDS Dobson-Smith: I think what’s really — you know, I’m always curious and interested about people that claim a space as being safe. You know oftentimes, the person saying, “This is a safe space” is a person that is carrying some sort of power, whether it’s a position of power as a trainer or a facilitator in a room or if it’s a position of power as someone that has a hierarchical position of power as a manager or a boss or a CEO or it’s a person who carries power and privilege based on their identity. 

Someone who has an identity marker that is either white, straight, cisgender, male, non-disabled. It’s again, as a — if I were to walk into a space as a queer person and a straight person says, “This is a safe space” I’ll be like, “You have no idea. You have no idea about my experience and therefore, you cannot claim this as a safe space.”

Instead, what I encourage people to talk about is brave spaces. It’s creating spaces that are intentionally brave, i.e. that you come into this space, knowing that I am me and I have all of my stuff, technical term, stuff as a human being and you have all of yours and if we want to have open and raw and honest conversations, candid conversations together, then it’s going to take bravery on both of our parts.

It’s going to take bravery on the person that has power and privilege to feel okay with being wrong or making mistakes and tripping up and it’s going to take bravery to the person that walks into the room with an aspect of their identity or identities that are marginalized or historically disempowered to show up. So that’s what I mean. Now interestingly, having said I don’t believe in safe spaces, I do believe in psychological safety. 

I do believe, and I write about this in the book as well, I do believe that it is in order to have a brave space then there needs to be psychological safety. Psychological safety to me is owed, it is not earned. If you are human and if you are harmless then you deserve psychological safety. It’s the idea that we can walk into a space, we can be around other people and it doesn’t feel expensive to be ourselves.

I.e. there’s no – the cost, the psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical cost that can come with being who we are when we have an experience psychological safety, that cost is removed so we are able to show up fully as we are. We can be whatever kind of queer we want to be, we can be whatever kind of black person or brown person we are, and that we want to be without fear of a psychological, emotional, or physical cost to ourselves.

Frank Garza: Well, DDS Dobson-Smith, writing a book is such a feat, congratulations on putting this out there into the world. Is there anything else about you or the book that you want to make sure our listeners know before we wrap up?

DDS Dobson-Smith: I think I would just — I’m so nervous about the launch of this book because it is very personal, you know? In the book, I share stories that other people have generously shared with me. I also sit here with an awareness. I’m holding an awareness that yes, I have credentials and qualifications and my own lived experience.

I’m also writing this book as a white person. I’m writing this book as somebody who is not disabled, I write this book as a person who was assigned male at birth, and that that comes with privilege. I want people to know that I’m not writing this as the paragon of virtue. I’m not writing this because I believe I’m some sort of guru. I’m writing this because I hope to share and experience, and I hope to humbly influence and help other people to be able to create a world where we can continue to experience increasing amounts of belonging.

Frank Garza: Well said. DDS Dobson-Smith, this has been such a pleasure, the book is called You Can Be Yourself Here. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Oh, that’s kind of you to ask. You can follow me on Instagram @dds_soul, you can also check out my company’s website, which is soultrained.com.

Frank Garza: Thank you, DDS Dobson-Smith.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Thank you.