New buzzwords regularly enter the workplace. Consider diversity and inclusion: “Diversity” quickly became “diversity and inclusion.” In some organizations, the order of the words changed to reflect the weight of priority, so “inclusion and diversity” became a term. Now, the phrase “psychological safety” is taking the corporate world by storm. What does it mean in the broader discussion about workplace diversity, and how can organizations achieve it?
At their core, all of these terms point to one key objective: creating a workplace that leverages everyone’s unique identities and makes them feel part of a whole. Doing so aids in improving talent attraction and engagement, customer connectedness, innovation, and business growth.
Psychological safety is about creating an environment where these objectives can flourish. It’s about employees’ feeling empowered to express an idea or contribution fully, without fear of negative consequences to themselves, their status or their career. It includes being courageous enough to showcase their vulnerability, to own their mistakes and turn them into learning, and trust that their work environment and co-workers will not shame them for doing so. Coined by Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson and propelled into the spotlight by a famous Google study, the concept of psychological safety is now regarded as a key ingredient in high-performing, agile teams and organizations.
Before organizations can foster psychological safety and expect revolutionary contributions, however, there’s a prerequisite: Employees must be accepted for who they are and valued for what they can bring. This prerequisite is where diversity and inclusion become intertwined with psychological safety.
Recognizing that people’s diverse backgrounds shape their unique perspectives of the world and, therefore, their contributions and insight, seems like a simple assumption. However, in high-pressured work environments where key decisions and deliverables are expected daily, we often conform to the leading opinion, the most senior person in the room or the traditional ways of working. As a result, that richness of perspective and history that each person brings falls to the wayside.
Making the Business Case for Psychological Safety
Conversations around psychological safety bring the focus back to the potential and power of tapping into every employee as a resource for innovation and business growth. Studies have shown that when conscious leaders foster workplaces that promote a “speak up” culture, employees are more likely to pitch innovative ideas that drive the organization forward.
Improving psychological safety has an even greater impact on employees who are members of marginalized groups or who occupy lower statuses within an organization. These individuals can feel reluctant to speak up, particularly in environments where they don’t see themselves represented at the top or where they feel that blending in is safer than standing out. Leaders’ tendency to promote or recognize people who are like them or a specific “type” of talent can contribute to this exclusion, creating the risk that they will overlook the valuable potential that diverse talent brings. Psychological safety can help break these patterns and habits and create a shift from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion.
The dynamic pace of change is placing increased pressure on organizations to innovate. Google has long been regarded as a leader in innovation, and the results of its study into optimal team performance uncovered why its reputation holds strong. Observing over 180 Google teams across a two-year period, the study found that the single biggest predictor of team success was psychological safety. More than who was on the team, it was the way the team interacted that led to the biggest benefits.
Comparably, Pixar, the popular American animation studio, has traced the success of its 17 consecutive box office hits to its ability to invite critical feedback within collaborative team meetings. Central to this approach has been the openness and candor created when leaders demonstrate by example how healthy challenge and brave ideas can result in creative excellence.
How Leaders Can Set the Tone
The C-suite and other executive leaders play a critical role in setting the tone and empowering the rest of the workforce to adopt ideal behaviors. Here are three tips for senior leaders across industries to promote psychological safety within their organizations:
Get to know the people on your team, and try to understand their background and what has shaped them. Invite unique perspectives during meetings, and invite contributions from everyone. Provide clarity on purpose and direction, but also use conscious, inclusive language like, “We want to hear from you” and, “Help us shape this next initiative.”
Demonstrate listening. If you’re one of the most senior people in the room, ask junior colleagues for their contributions first. Listen more, talk less and build on suggestions to show acknowledgement: “That’s an interesting angle we hadn’t considered. How can we incorporate it next time?”
Lead With Courage
Be transparent in communication. Share success stories, but also showcase the challenges, how you overcame them and even the times when you faced a project failure. What did you learn from that failure, and how can you empower others to speak up when quality is at stake?
Put personal success aside, and spotlight others. Use internal communication avenues such as email and blogs to spread awareness and champion individuals who have raised a new idea, established a new process or constructively questioned something. As a senior leader, challenge traditional ways of working by empowering a new norm.
Critical to any of these strategies is the ability to connect, human to human. Look for opportunities where people could benefit from your support, acknowledge when you might need a helping hand yourself and think about the impact you’re having on others. Demonstrating and leading with empathy is important in avoiding a blame culture.
Avoid always working with the same people. Take part in reverse mentoring programs, or partner with employee resource groups to immerse yourself in environments where you can hear from diverse individuals.
Finally, the key to psychological safety and inclusive leadership is not to pick a strategy and do it once. To create an authentic culture where psychological safety is the norm and innovation can thrive, do many of these activities regularly. Success is about leading by example; genuinely noticing the value that lies in everyone; and recognizing that everyone wins when organizations eliminate barriers to honest, open contribution.