Psychological safety researcher Dr. Amy Edmondson wrote last year that the “painful confrontation of racial inequities in society [has] dramatically increased attention to diversity and inclusion, while also dramatically increasing the ambition of well-led organizations to act swiftly and effectively to make a positive difference.” She argues that “hiring for diversity is not enough”; employees must know that they can bring their full self to work and experience the candor to enter conversations where people are open to hearing diverse viewpoints. This sentiment is the bedrock of what it means to create an inclusive, psychologically safe workplace.
Psychological safety is the ability to “show up” as oneself without fear of negative consequences associated with self-image, career or social status. A sense of psychological safety in the workplace enables team members to feel confident speaking up with ideas, questions and concerns. It can even lead teams to become more comfortable taking chances and making mistakes, since they don’t have the fear of being humiliated or singled out.
At a time when cultural inclusion is top of mind, trust, transparency and open feedback are especially important. So, how can leaders foster a climate that values inclusivity and empowers individuals to contribute freely to the conversation and effect change?
Firstly, leaders must cultivate open communication channels to learn who within the organization is experiencing structural and systemic roadblocks (e.g., organizational culture, lack of direction, pathways to promotion, etc.). When the people who experience those roadblocks have the psychological safety to contribute authentically and unapologetically, a company can identify internal systems that may perpetuate inequities.
This practice sometimes starts with a new hire. Leaders must make it their mission to connect with team members from the moment they come on board, outlining goals and expectations openly and honestly. In many cases, employees aren’t comfortable having upfront, in-depth conversations about the potential for success or the risk of failure or what rewards or consequences might accompany them. However, inclusive leaders understand that those conversations forge connections and reinforce psychological safety so that an individual’s passions, competencies and experiences can come to the forefront. Proactive transparency mitigates risk down the line and helps to ensure that an employee’s skills are put to their best use.
Inclusion = Empowerment
The potential of a diverse workforce can only be discovered if businesses take the time to build on the diverse capabilities of their team members. Organizations foster inclusion by objectively identifying and valuing employees’ unique capabilities. On the more subjective side, an individual develops a sense of belonging through lived experiences within the company. It doesn’t always take long — new hires often can quickly determine whether they can voice opinions and contribute to conversations without fear of retribution for sharing divergent viewpoints. When an employee’s experience demonstrates that the organization values their uniqueness and appreciates their role within the culture, inclusion forges the pathway to empowerment.
The Role of Feedback
To gather and act on honest input from individuals throughout an organization, companies must create a feedback-driven culture that encourages and respects open communication. An organization that values differences within its workforce and fosters trust in feedback engenders a sense of psychological safety, as employees who trust the feedback loop will honestly communicate with leaders. Only through a relationship-building mentality can an organization generate this type of psychologically safe environment and continuous feedback loop.
The Power of Inclusive Leadership
Organizations that dedicate resources toward fostering an inclusive, psychologically safe workplace have been shown to reap the benefits in the form of improved teamwork, increased learning and innovation, and better business outcomes. To champion a psychologically safe environment, company leaders must be the first to demonstrate courage, humility and accountability to embolden the same in their employees.
People don’t become leaders by being perfect. They rise to the position by sharing positive and negative experiences with their team members. This disclosure models humility and is an essential part of gaining trust. When leaders nurture trust, they influence and empower others in the organization. The result is a dynamic sharing of ideas in an environment of psychological safety.
By intentionally fostering an open, feedback-driven culture and asserting high-level principles such as empowerment, courage and humility, leaders will be well-positioned to create an inclusive, psychologically safe environment where diversity fuels meaningful growth.