Using Scuba to Create an Inclusive Workplace

In: community, diversity, inclusion, startup

By Jane Nguyen, Head of People Development and Impact, Redbubble 

What are we doing?

Your (unconscious) brain has a vast number of default responses ready to be used in various situations, usually kicking in when you feel under pressure or acute stress – often referred to as the fight, flight or freeze response.

For example, when your nose is submerged under water, your unconscious brain keeps your mouth shut, reroutes blood to vital organs to conserve oxygen and various other things to keep you alive. It does this because it doesn’t want to drown by taking in water. It’s not *just* instinct. This is a response to experiences you’ve had taking in water, choking and spluttering when your nose was underwater, starting at birth. The more often it happens, the stronger the association with the negative outcome, the faster the response.

If you learn to swim, you can learn to override this response with a new one. You learn how to open your mouth and breathe out underwater, and you learn how to cope if you do breath in a little water. The more often you swim without harm, the stronger the association with the new response. The more often you swim, the stronger the response the faster it gets, the more “default” it becomes.

Scuba is pretty technical, so here are some pretty simple principles.

  • Never hold your breath.
  • Air in the lungs compresses the deeper into the ocean you go, and expands on the way back up (because, physics).
  • Things go wrong all the time so you need to be prepared for them.

When learning to scuba dive, students are taught how to ascent properly. Hand above head, looking up in the direction you’re heading, other hand ready to release air from your buoyancy control device (BCD), and breath out and say “aahhh”. Students are taught to practice this every time they get in the water, every time they dive, to reinforce it and make it natural. Why?

If something happens at depth, and a diver holds their breath during an ascent, the air will expand, potentially damaging or bursting a lung. Similarly if you don’t dump the air from your BCD, as you go up, the air expands, you ascend faster and potentially out of control, and if you hold your breath during all this, bad things happen.

This is particularly important in scuba if you’re down at depth and for whatever reason, your mask is removed for filled with water, and your nose is submerged under water.

So, by practising these habits when things are good, help make them “natural” or “automatic” when things are bad, and could save your life.

What does this have to do with diversity and inclusiveness?

What if creating an inclusive workplace, or being an inclusive leader, wasn’t just about being nicer or just when things were good? What if it was about keeping your cool and staying open-minded under pressure? And what if that means practising keeping your cool and staying open-minded all the time, not just under pressure? Just like swimming or scuba? That’s much of our initial focus at Redbubble. Because we feel that’s the true litmus test for creating a sense of belonging.

Of course, I am as cool as a cucumber and can think super clearly when I am under pressure. Well…not exaaaactly. (See dive story 1 below).

To illustrate this in a non-diving context for those non swimmers, I recommend watching Verna Myers TED talk on this (specifically between 4:00 – 5:45)

The short version is: Verna is on a flight, and a female pilot speaks on the overhead speaker.Verna is supremely proud and supportive. Yay! Female pilot. Later, as with most flights, turbulence hits. Verna says “I hope she can drive”. A default she didn’t even know she had, because on every other flight she’d taken and hit turbulence, she had never questioned the competence of the male pilot.

Verna poses some great questions. Who are we in a crisis? What are our defaults? And when are they likely to present themselves…or leak out. I should clarify, we all have them. And it doesn’t make us bad people, and it doesn’t mean our biases present themselves all the time.

At Redbubble, we are trying to help our people understand the different types of biases and the implications of that in the workplace, along with helping them identify and understand their own defaults biases, and what are the moments of pressure or acute stress they might present themselves?

We’re starting with unconscious social beliefs about men, women and leadership. That, stereotypically we associate men with assertive traits and women with warm traits. We also stereotypically associate leaders with assertive traits. It’s the “think male, think leader” association and the infamous double bind that puts women in.

We also looking at how open people are to change under pressure. Some people are naturally more comfortable with ambiguity and experimenting with new ideas, and some people are more cautious and adverse to change and really like to stick to the things they know. This is important because if we want to continue adding to the mix (diversity) then we need people to be open to change. If we’re closed to change, specifically under pressure, the chances of any diversity and inclusion strategy working deteriorate.

Big change? Start with a tiny habit.

We want to embed this knowledge and create a sustainable learning and habit building experience. Inspired by BJ Fogg’s talk on Big change, start with a tiny habit, we’re going to start focusing on designing habits that will help override these defaults or biases. Like learning to swim or scuba dive.

Individuals identify a default, bias or opportunity they would like to change and design an experiment on their behaviour of how to change it. Habits they can practice every day as individuals, creating “natural” responses to help them stay open minded under pressure.

How will we measure success?

I don’t know if anyone has got this right yet, and it’s a bit like asking “how do you know you’re healthy and/or fit?” There’s not really one number or feeling that gives you the tick of approval, but a range of different factors you have to take into consideration, and have regular check ups to see the trend. So what are all those factors or indicators that we are considering?

We believe there’s a strong correlation between inclusiveness and engagement. The more included you feel, the happier you’re likely to be, the more engaged you are likely to be.

We use our engagement results to help identify our opportunities and efforts in diversity and inclusiveness and vice versa.

We’ve also participated in the Inclusiveness Survey run by Culture Amp. This is great because it helps with actionable outcomes. If the response to the question “Perspectives like mine are included in decision making” is unfavourable, then you have a real course of action to dig deeper and find ways to have different perspectives included. The more included you feel your perspective is, the more likely (and happier) you are to continue to contribute it, the more engaged you become.

As with general health and fitness, at a point in time inclusiveness and engagement metrics will help illuminate what you can work on right now, and with consistent check ins, you can see long term progress.

Another big set of metrics we’re looking at are our diversity demographic data. Inherent demographics, like age, race, gender, coupled with acquired/intellectual diversity demographics like experience, perspective, skills, education and problem solving styles.

We’re also monitoring individual, team and manager effectiveness as peripheral indications to diversity and inclusiveness.

I know this won’t happen overnight, and I know we’ll never be finished. I like the idea of moving everyone to embrace the challenge of being pushed into discomfort and change.


About Jane

Connector of dots, maker of things, amplifier of people.