In a rapidly changing world where work teams are becoming increasingly multicultural, multifunctional and multigenerational, creating an inclusive workplace culture is critical. Our work is deeply interconnected, and answers to some of our biggest problems have to come from the collective. Key to a powerful collective intelligence is having a pool of diverse intelligence — representative of different expertise, perspectives and training etc. — and the ability to harness and sustain this diversity.
In an inclusive workplace, everyone feels that that he or she has a voice and is comfortable making that voice heard. It is an environment where voices, ideas and perspectives of all types are free to come together, disagree, discuss and eventually gain new ideas and insights. In short, it is an environment with psychological safety.
At its core, psychological safety is about creating a learning culture, where people are comfortable taking risks. In his book “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety,” Timothy R. Clark defines psychological safety as “a condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo — all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”
As with most cultural issues, people take their lead from their leaders, and creating psychologically safe workplaces is quickly becoming a key leadership skill. With that in mind, here are three strategies to help boost psychological safety on your team:
1. Cultivate Self-awareness
To be able to listen and understand others, we need to make sure that we have a strong understanding of ourselves. What are our strengths? What areas do we need to work on? Where are our biases? In what ways is our thinking automatic? How can we bring more diverse perspectives into our thinking?
The key here is to analyze our thinking process critically rather than automatically interpreting facts and situations following predetermined mental pathways. This process requires actively cultivating our understanding based on evidence and context.
Often, leaders’ sense of how they lead is different from how their team perceives them. There are many diagnostic assessments and feedback processes that help leaders develop a clearer understanding of themselves. Use them, but also be aware that openly sharing this inquiry and journey with your team makes it more likely that they will start to do the same.
2. Work on Your Emotional Intelligence
Our ability to understand, manage and express what we feel is critical to leading and working with others, as is the ability to recognize and respond to others’ emotions. In a world where we are frequently called to collaborate and create with others, understanding how your communication and behavior impacts others is critical.
Emotions are contagious, whether they are positive or negative. Being emotionally agile, attuned and receptive helps us read a room and observe which behaviors and comments work and which don’t, and enables us to practice limiting destructive behaviors and stretching to useful ones.
Emotionally savvy leaders have deep listening skills and can pick up even weak signals in a room. They can balance vulnerability and input with focus and direction, and they can listen for intent, not just content. They can speak with directness and firmness but also with acceptance and understanding. Together, these behaviors encourage others to speak freely and openly.
3. Focus on Asking for Feedback, Not Just Giving It
By normalizing the quest for data and information that helps you improve, you give permission for others also not to be perfect. It allows for more risk-taking and honest exchange and enables a culture where everyone learns to share and enter into discussions (even heated ones) without taking things personally. All these factors are critical to learning, innovation and growth.
This piece may be a sticking point for many, as it’s difficult to do in practice. How do you show vulnerability without showing weakness, self-doubt and insecurity and while still showing vision, strength and stability? Striking the right balance can be tricky — but it is possible and well worth the effort.
Many misunderstand what psychological safety really is. It does not mean being cocooned or overprotected by your company or boss. Rather, it means feeling at home and comfortable enough in your environment to speak openly, take risks and make mistakes. Where there’s psychological safety, people are willing to ask for help and speak their point of view without worrying about negative consequences. They are more able and willing to listen to differing points of view, ideas and perspectives and respect them — even if they don’t agree with them.
Creating psychologically safe environments is a huge factor in helping organizations maximize their ability to capture and harvest a range of ideas from employees, which drives growth and innovation. Psychological safety creates the space for collaboration and co-creation to happen. As leaders, we all need to think how we can create this environment. It does, after all, start at the top.