Do you want to know THE most important aspect of creating a diverse and inclusive culture?

Start here and I guarantee you success with your Diversity and Inclusion efforts

In order for us to thrive we first and foremost have to feel safe. Physical safety is a basic human need. As a species we have evolved to associate connection with safety. We are simply not designed to go it alone. We need our tribe. If we get separated from our tribe we feel vulnerable. Exclusion makes us feel unsafe. Fending for ourselves is not our natural default setting – unless you’re Bear Grylls – and even the ultimate survivor has a wife and children to return home to.

Within the context of diversity and inclusion, members of the none majority group; women, the elderly, those with physical or mental disabilities, members of the LGBTQI+ community, individuals from racial or ethnic groups are all at greater physical risk of harm than straight, white able-bodied men. This isn’t to say that white straight able-bodied men are never physically harmed, because of cause they are BUT statistically they are by far the safest group to belong to.

However for the purpose of this blog, I’m not talking about physical safety. I’m talking about another type of safety which I believe is the key to unlocking diverse and inclusive cultures which incidentally are more likely to be physically safe places. The type of safety I’m talking about os PSYCHOLOGICAL SATEFY.

What is Psychological Safety?

According to Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Let’s think about this for a moment…If we’re fearful of asking for help, seeking feedback, admitting errors or trying something new for fear of the consequences, what are the chances of us being innovative or simply productive? How do we learn if we’re consumed by a fear of failure? How do we challenge each other to push the boundaries if we’re restricted to playing safe?

Within any group setting, but let’s use work as an example, no one wants to look IGNORANT, INCOMPETENT, INTRUSIVE or NEGATIVE and let’s be honest, no one is looking for a team member to bring those qualities. They’re not top of the ideal traits list during any recruitment phase. So if we’re smart, and I know you are because your reading this post, we have trained ourselves not to be any of these things. Psychologists call this ‘impression management‘. Remember we need our tribe to survive so we have adapted the following behaviours:

We don’t want to look IGNORANT so we don’t ask questions.

We don’t want to look INCOMPETENT so we don’t admit to any weaknesses or admit to making mistakes.

We don’t want to look INTRUSIVE so we don’t offer ideas.

We don’t to be seen as NEGATIVE so we don’t critique the status quo.

Think for a moment about your work environment, what is your response to the following questions:

  • Do you think everyone feels comfortable asking questions about topics they do not fully understand in meeting situations, or do you think people try to maintain an image of perfect knowledge about work matters to save face?
  • Do you think that everyone’s voice is heard in meeting situations?
  • Would you say people in your team are comfortable talking about difficult issues, would they feel comfortable suggesting a different way to do things?
  • What happens when people make mistakes? Is their first reaction to distance themselves from the mistake so they are not blamed or are mistakes seen as a learning opportunity?
  • How hierarchical is your business? Does rank and title provide immunity from critical reflection or challenge?
  • Do people ask each other for help when they need it?
  • If disagreements are raised in a meeting situation, is it the issue that’s challenged or the person?

Your answers to these questions will give you some idea as to how psychologically safe your working environment is.

What are the consequences of not creating a psychologically safe team?

It is Physically and Mentally Exhausting. Hiding who we are takes a lot of energy. Basically we remain in some degree of fight or flight mode. I know this sounds dramatic but let me break it down and put it into context. Before I open my mouth to give an answer in a meeting, my mind is processing the possible reactions my response may evoke. I’m listening to the content of the meeting, I’m formulating my own opinion and at the same time running a risk analysis. You know the saying ‘choose your battles’, that’s how many people feel in a work environment. Like they’re entering a battle field and have to armour up to survive. Will I receive too much attention or not enough if I wear this outfit today? If I leave my hair in its natural state will I be judged to be unprofessional? If I introduce myself with my full name will I have to keep reminding people of the correct pronunciation 100 times? For some people my gender identity may not align with my physical appearance, I’m going to have to correct their incorrect use of my pronouns and deal with the uncomfortable situation that follows. I know I’ve only been invited to this meeting as the token minority, should I feel grateful to be here or insulted that I’m here to make up numbers? I know I need to inform my work I’m pregnant but I’m scared I will loose my job as a result.

It severely limits innovation. Everyone’s looking for the new shiny thing. In the last 10 years or so I think innovation seems to appear on more job descriptions and company bylines than anything else. A couple of years ago I applied for a big national prestigious grant and the application required me to build on existing knowledge whilst being unique and innovative, all in less than 500 words! But here’s the thing, innovation doesn’t fall from the sky, it’s built on a foundation of failure. If we’re too scared to fail we can’t possibly innovate.

It can literally have life and death consequences. In Amy Edmondson’s Ted Talk on psychological safety she uses the example of a trainee co-pilot who notices something wrong with the cockpit read outs. The fear of judgement and criticism that may come from the experienced pilot, stops the less experience co-pilot speaking up. Here authority trumps integrity and the result could be catastrophic.

What are the positive benefits of a psychologically safe team?

I’m pretty sure by this point you have started to draw your own conclusions as to why having a psychologically safe team culture is beneficially. But I know a lot of people feel the need to have the ‘business case’ laid out, so here it is my friends. Project Aristotle by Google. Google’s People Analytics found that psychological safety was the most reliable trait shared by high performing teams. For clarity they found five traits that separated high performing teams from the others alongside psychological safety was, structure and clarity, dependability, meaning, and impact. But the most foundational of these traits, the one that without it you could not have a high performing team was psychological safety. Project Aristotle as well as other studies have found that psychological safety is strongly associated with objective (e.g. sales revenue) and subjective indicators of team performance (e.g. ratings of team performance by team members and managers, customer satisfaction with team products). The strongest effect of psychological safety on team performance appears to be through its beneficial effects on team learning with studies reporting psychological safety enabling the faster adoption of new technologies (process innovation), the faster adaptation to new market circumstances and customer requirements, the early identification of potentially catastrophic risks, and the faster development of innovative products.

What has this got to do with Diversity and Inclusion?

Psychological safety ultimately creates a safe space. In order for us to do our jobs efficiently and effectively we deserve the basic human need of a safe environment. Creating a safe environment enables an opportunity for everyone to thrive. Without it no diversity and inclusion training, schemes, initiatives, campaigns, policies etc will ever work. I know you’re thinking I’m being dramatic again so let me give you some context.

Most organisations start their D&I journey with a series of staff training / development sessions / workshops. Most start this series with some form of unconscious bias training. Which is without a doubt a must have in the D&I arsenal. However, how impactful can an unconscious bias training workshop be without psychological safety? What are the chances of me admitting in a group situation that I have recently become aware that my behaviour can at times be racist? What happens if I acknowledge that I have used sexist comments during ‘harmless banter conversations with colleagues’? What will be the reaction from my colleagues if I share my discomfort with conversations associated with the LGBTQI+ community?

Remember psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

A high level of psychological safety with a low level of motivation and accountability results in nothing more than apathy. A safe space requires barriers of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and clear consequences associated with these behaviours. The sweet spot for performance and innovation in a business or team is the combination of high psychological safety and high motivation and accountability.

So before you start trying to recruit more diversity, ask yourself is this a safe space for them. Before you run an unconscious bias training programme, ask yourself is this a safe space to discuss these issues. Before you ask people to follow through with your D&I policies, ask yourself is it safe for them to do so.

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