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Diversity as a success factor

At Volkswagen Group’s third diversity conference in Salzburg, Diversity Managers from all over the world discussed how diversity is lived out in the Group and what role a safe working environment plays in its success.

“We live diversity” – as one of the seven Group principles, is an essential part of Volkswagen Group’s DNA. The aim is to pool the potential of all employees of different brands, countries and subsidiaries with their different skills, perspectives and experiences within the Group, bring together the best talents and ideas and thus shape the future of the automotive industry together.

Auf der dritten Diversity Konferenz in Salzburg vom 5. bis 6. September diskutierten Diversity Manager aus aller Welt die Fortschritte der Volkswagen Konzern „Diversity wins“-Strategie. Ein Thema: Die Bedeutung von psychologischer Sicherheit für Erfolg durch Vielfalt im Unternehmen.


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Diversity Konferenz 2019

Diversity as a key success factor for the future

Just under 70 diversity managers from various locations and brands discussed how successfully this strategy is already being implemented and practiced within the Group and what efforts are still needed to increase diversity, during Volkswagen Group’s third diversity conference, held in Salzburg from September 5 to 6. After several stops, including the UK and Sweden, this time it took place at the invitation of Porsche Holding GmbH, based in Austria. This year’s focus was on the exchange of knowledge and best practice examples from different brands and locations in order to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.

  • Best Practice Example „CSD Parade 2019“

    In 2019, Volkswagen took part in Berlin’s Christopher Street Day (CSD) for the first time with a parade truck – taking a clear stand for diversity and against discrimination. The motto: “We Drive Diversity”. The truck was decorated with a large Volkswagen logo on a rainbow-colored background. The 130 participants thus demonstrated how strongly the Group principle of “We live Diversity” is anchored in the Volkswagen Group.

    Participation at the CSD event was organized by the “LGBT* and friends” network “We drive Proud” together with the Diversity Management team. The network not only advocates the interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, inter* and queer people, it also wants to actively shape cultural change in the company. LGBT* is the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans*.

    More information:
    For diversity: Volkswagen with own truck at CSD parade in Berlin

    * These statements are formulated negatively – the less accurate the statement is evaluated, the higher the psychological safety is to be classified in these cases.

Volkswagen Board Member for Human Resources Gunnar Kilian was enthusiastic about the spirit of the conference and underlined the importance of a diverse corporate culture for Volkswagen Group: “We need more effort focused towards diversity throughout the Volkswagen Group. Diversity is one of our key success factors for the future, so that we can use the potential of very different people in all their differences – whether nationality, gender or sexuality – for the benefit of the company. Just how important this topic is to him is shown by the fact that the Group’s Diversity and Women’s Advancement Team will be reporting to him personally from October. “Thanks in part to Elke Heitmüller and her team, we have made great progress in recent years and I am convinced that the team I met here will make ‘Diversity wins’ a reality within the Volkswagen Group.

Psychological safety in focus

The key lies in an open, positive and inclusive work culture and a climate in which everyone feels confident, involved and enthusiastic about working together. It’s about psychological safety. Or as Karin Prinzing, responsible for personnel development at the German MAN brand sales company and speaker at this year’s Diversity Conference on the subject, says: “It’s about creating an atmosphere free of fear in which everyone dares to express their opinions openly, to come up with new and possibly uncomfortable ideas and to question perceived grievances – even if what is said falls outside the norm or if there is a risk that others will take completely different views. In an innovative team atmosphere, this is possible without colleagues making you feel bad for it, reacting irritated or knocking you down for the objection. If we manage to create such a climate, then we use the diversity of our employees, because everyone can fully participate.”

  • Definition and history of psychological safety

    The term “psychological safety” has been used in psychology and organizational psychology for some time. It first appeared in 1965. The US scientists Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis described psychological safety as an environment in which individuals can feel safe and self-confident to bring about change under their own initiative. In 1990, the American psychologist William Kahn described psychological safety as “a working environment in which a person feels comfortable showing and engaging themselves without fear of negative consequences for self-image, status or career”. Building on this, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety when she first published her work in 1999: for her, it refers to a climate in teams that can be defined as “the shared conviction of the members of a team that it is safe to take interpersonal risks”. In other words, “psychological safety is the common belief that you are not punished or humiliated by your colleagues when you express ideas, critical questions or concerns, or talk about mistakes”.  According to Immanuel Kant, this can also mean: “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

Then a mutual learning process would emerge which would arouse curiosity and thirst for knowledge and from which both employees and the company would benefit. “The question often arises as to how diversity is linked to corporate successes. For me, the way to achieve this is through the concept of psychological safety. Because if we create an open climate in which we learn from each other by openly expressing different views, ideas and perspectives in a team, then this increased knowledge horizon demonstrably also promotes the performance of the teams and thus drives the success of a company.”

Anyone who wants to learn must get out of their comfort zone, not be phased by the risk of failing and be prepared to venture into new experiments in their working life that open up new perspectives and thus create new innovations. An anxiety-free team atmosphere with high psychological assurance offers the perfect conditions for this in many respects.

Failure as a chance

“Companies are naturally always interested in their performance and its improvement in order to survive in the market. But increasing performance and breaking new ground always entails the risk of failure and making a mistake. It has been shown that failure and making mistakes are part of learning. If we don’t dare to make mistakes and talk about them, we learn less because we are in the comfort zone. It is therefore important to create a culture in which mistakes are seen as something positive, because they arise during learning and help us to do something right in the end,” says Karin Prinzing. Diversity managers also have a role to play in promoting an open, safe, fair and therefore innovative workplace climate. Because whenever you make a mistake, you won’t make it a second time as a person capable of learning. Failure is an opportunity to improve performance and thus secure the long-term success of a company like the Volkswagen Group.

The same applies to the climate of psychological safety in the workplace. Karin Prinzing says: “We know from research at Google, for example, that working environments with a high proportion of psychological safety are more innovative, more profitable, more successful and more trustworthy than those with a climate of fear. At the same time, employees are more creative and motivated if they are allowed to break new ground, can talk openly about it and are not afraid of failure.” This not only leads to more participation in discussions and to the identification of improvement potentials, but also to a more constructive handling of conflicts. These can also promote innovation, which is so important in a very fast-moving environment, as we can also learn from each other and advance each other in objective discussions. A team climate with high psychological safety can be promoted by sharing information, common goals and an inclusive leadership style, in which feedback is desired and democratic interaction within the team is made possible.

  • With the help of these statements you measure psychological safety in your own team

    1. If you make a mistake on this team, it’s often used against you. *
    2. The members of my team are able to address problems and difficult issues.
    3. People in my team sometimes reject others because they are different. *
    4. It’s safe to take a risk on my team.
    5. It’s difficult to ask other members of my team for help. *
    6. No one on my team would deliberately act to undermine my efforts. 
    7. Working with the members of my team appreciates and uses my unique skills and talents.


    * These statements are formulated negatively – the less accurate the statement is evaluated, the higher the psychological safety is to be classified in these cases.

The credo “Diversity wins” as a goal

The best example of how such a working environment can be inspirational, motivational and the basis for the success of the future at the same time: Volkswagen Group’s Diversity Conference this year. Group Diversity Manager Benjamin Ramirez draws a positive conclusion: “The spirit of the conference was inspiring. Many dedicated diversity managers from all over the world shared their best practice examples around diversity. We gain further insights by openly looking together at mistakes from past situations. With success. We are growing as a community. Three years ago, around 45 people took part in the first conference; this year there were already just under 70 colleagues. That’s encouraging and I’m proud to be part of this diversity community.”

And Elke Heitmüller adds: “We have many diversity managers in all brands and at many locations, who are all highly motivated. Working with them brings a lot of spirit and commitment. That’s why I think we’re on the right track, so our belief, ‘Diversity wins’ soon becomes a reality.”

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