psychological safety

Creating An Inclusive Company Culture Begins With Psychological Safety

By Baili Bigham

Since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, people across the nation, and the globe, have been experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. We’re heartbroken over the death of an innocent man fallen victim to police brutality once again, enraged over the deep systemic racism that has been put under the spotlight, and shameful that these injustices are not new, but are only now beginning to receive the attention they’ve deserved all along. 

Luckily, change is in motion. As a start, we’re witnessing corporations voice commitments to build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces, and while it should not have taken yet another life lost to realize the importance of representation, silence is no longer the acceptable response. 

Leaders and managers, now is the time to commit to building an organization where every individual feels psychologically safe to be exactly who they are. But in order to achieve this, your culture must be truly inclusive. 

What is psychological safety and why should your company prioritize it

Psychological safety is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” It hinges on making sure your people feel both respected and accepted by removing the fear of making mistakes. Psychological safety is the foundation of every strong professional—and personal— relationship because it allows people to feel safe to speak up. 

When high levels of psychological safety are present in a work environment, employees are more willing to ask for their own feedback and offer candid feedback, openly admit mistakes, express ideas and concerns, and learn from one another. 

Some benefits of creating an environment with high levels of psychological safety include increased creativity and innovation, higher organizational effectiveness, and boosted engagement. In fact, researchers from Google developed five key dynamics of effective teams and psychological safety sits at the very top. “This was the single most important dynamic in an effective team. People who don’t feel psychologically safe worry that taking risks will mean they’re seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. Psychological safety means feeling confident about admitting mistakes, asking questions, or offering new ideas,” according to Google researchers.

But in order for your employees to show up to work each day and feel safe to be their whole, best selves, you must create a work environment that is consciously inclusive. 

There is no psychological safety without inclusivity

For psychological safety to exist in a team environment, inclusion must also be present. But building an inclusive and diverse environment is not easy and will not happen on its own. If your culture doesn’t actively empower all of your people to feel accepted for who they are, then your work environment will not employ your people to be open and honest, take calculated risks, or bring their unique perspective to the table.

The truth is, people tend to gravitate towards people who are like them and even unconscious biases can perpetuate exclusion in powerful ways. For instance, it’s common for companies to hire employees with similar attitudes or traits. But those who don’t identify with the majority may feel less inclined to contribute or downplay their differences to “fit in.” This can negate the many benefits of creating a diverse culture and will diminish any feeling of psychological safety.

“Wide demographics alone won’t make a difference to an organization’s bottom line unless the people within those demographics feel authentically welcomed,” according to Gallup. “They [employees] need to feel recognized for their unique backgrounds, experiences, personalities, and the things they do exceptionally well—their strengths.

How to create psychologically safe environments for your people

Because building an inclusive and psychologically safe culture can’t happen by the efforts of just one person, it’s important to implement cultural practices. Here are four ways you can encourage your teams on a consistent basis to build trust and empower inclusivity.

– Encourage a culture of listening
We, especially extraverts, have a tendency to jump into conversations without taking in what’s being said. But sometimes, it’s best to pass the mic to others and actively listen. Take these opportunities to learn from those who may not always feel comfortable speaking up and offer a safe space for them to speak freely.

– Promote candor by talking about successes and failures together
Celebrating wins can be a wonderfully positive experience that brings people together, but don’t forget to discuss the losses too. Redefine what failure looks like by allowing your people to experience it and grow from it. This doesn’t just help people collaborate more seamlessly, it also supports team development.

– Encourage everyone to openly share ideas and concerns
Diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments plus high levels of psychological safety equals the perfect formula for innovation. Give your people the space to express their creativity and the comfort to share their concerns. 

– Have healthy conversations when disagreements occur
When you bring together different backgrounds, opinions, and priorities in the workplace, friction sometimes can’t be avoided. Give your people the tools to have clearing conversations to resolve everyday conflict or deeper-rooted trust issues.

Making the shift into a more inclusive and psychologically safe environment requires a collective effort from your team members, but these behaviors should be modeled from the very top. Leaders and managers, don’t just challenge your team to these practices, join in and actively participate. 

Building a workplace environment with high levels of psychological safety begins by creating spaces for people to feel accepted for who they are and their unique experiences that they bring. Use these practices to begin working towards a better environment for your people today, and continue educating yourself and your teams as you progress towards becoming a truly inclusive organization.

Baili Bigham is the Content Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, OKR tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and 360° reviews. When Baili isn’t writing, you can find her binge-reading a new book or strategizing ways to pet every dog in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @bgbigz.


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