Workers must be made to feel psychologically safe
Managers should be trained in inclusive leadership practices
For companies serious about increasing diversity and inclusion, the recipe often includes a mixture of revamped policies, training and programs. But there’s one critical ingredient that is often overlooked: psychological safety.
While it sounds like something that requires a master’s degree to practice, it’s actually a very simple tool that should be in every people manager’s tool box.
When psychological safety is present, employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. They feel safe voicing their needs and opinions and speaking up when they disagree, without fear of being marginalized, embarrassed or punished. The safer team members feel, the more likely they are to experiment and innovate, admit mistakes, work together, and take on new roles and challenges.
The benefits of psychological safety are widely studied and reported on. They include: attracting and retaining diverse talent, increased innovation, creativity, communication, knowledge sharing, problemsolving, efficiency, engagement and more. A Google study on psychological safety found that who is on the team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and value their contribution.
We know by now that diversity and having diverse perspectives on a team lead to improved decision-making and performance. But if your diverse team doesn’t feel safe sharing their diverse perspectives, not only are the benefits of diversity nullified, it’s also likely that you’ll struggle with retention, employee engagement and satisfaction, and innovation. Therefore, diversity and inclusion must go hand-inhand to create work environments characterized by inclusive leadership, equality and fairness of opportunity, as well as openness and freedom from discrimination.
People managers have a direct impact on how employees experience the workplace and feel at work. Ultimately, the ability to create an environment where diverse views are shared, actively considered and incorporated into the decision-making process, lies in their hands. Leaders of companies should ensure that every people manager is trained in inclusive leadership practices and understands what to do (and what not to do!) to create and maintain psychological safety on their teams.
Here are four actions any leader or people manager should regularly practice:
Demonstrate inclusive and empathetic leadership
The success of equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives hinges on leadership embracing them throughout the organization, beginning at the top. All leaders and people managers should strive to consistently maintain inclusive leadership: be visually appreciative for others’ contributions, encourage participation and risk-taking, show empathy and actively challenge team members’ behaviours that limit inclusion.
Create a learning culture
A learning culture occurs when people can voice their opinions, ideas and concerns without fear of retaliation. To encourage this, emphasize knowledge sharing, learning and experimentation, and celebrate appropriate failure and recognize effort rather than solely celebrating positive results. Organizations can do this by setting the tone personally with an emphasis on free-flowing communication and honesty, inviting participation by leading with humility and vulnerability, listening attentively and remaining open to others’ ideas, rewarding failure and recognizing effort and intention, and by encouraging your team to ask lots of questions and engage in reflective thinking.
To uphold a psychologically safe environment, team leaders must ensure their feedback is timely, well-intended, actionable, specific, focused on behaviours and performance, and private. Additionally, the emphasis should be on providing conversational feedback — asking lots of questions — and a two-way street. Team leaders should be open to receiving feedback in return to get the best out of their team. This also means that team leaders should engage in conversations about how their feedback might not be working. By demonstrating openness to feedback, they’ll build the mutual vulnerability that is crucial for psychological safety.
Challenge power structures
Power disparities have adverse effects on team collaboration, decision-making, communication and overall team performance. Without psychological safety, people are less likely to speak up in the presence of both opportunities or risks. A psychologically safe work environment welcomes dissent, and team leaders should regularly challenge group-think, and encourage healthy conversations over opposite ideas while avoiding conflict.
Reducing the perceived power differential and encouraging dissent can be as simple as moving to a more accessible space, letting team members voice an opinion first, and listening with empathy to everyone’s opinion. It also involves providing team members with real-time information about processes and outcomes; encouraging them to push back with data; actively reporting findings; and creating a continuous learning loop.
Without psychological safety, true inclusion is simply not possible.