How Psychological Safety Can Support Your Organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

How Psychological Safety Can Support Your Organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts

By Ada Mbogu 

In today’s rapidly changing world, organizations increasingly recognize the importance of fostering diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments. At the heart of these efforts lies the concept of psychological safety, a critical ingredient enabling individuals to contribute their unique perspectives and talents fully. 

Psychological safety and DEI are the same, though they work hand in hand in driving behavioral and cultural change. DEI efforts alone cannot thrive without the foundation of psychological safety. When individuals feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to share their unique perspectives, challenge biases, and actively contribute to creating a culture of belonging.

Understanding Psychological Safety: 

Psychological safety, as coined by Harvard Professor and Author of “The Fearless Organization” Amy Edmonson, refers to the shared belief that one will not face negative consequences for speaking up, taking risks, or expressing ideas, opinions, or concerts within a group or organization. It is the bedrock of a healthy work environment, where individuals feel safe to be authentic, take interpersonal risks, and contribute fully to their teams. 

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety: 

How does psychological safety appear in organizations and teams? According to Timothy Clark, author of “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety,” the journey towards establishing psychological safety can be categorized into four progressive stages. 

  1. Inclusion Safety: Individuals feel a sense of acceptance and belonging, where they are included and respected for who they are, irrespective of their background, identity, or perspectives.
  2. Learner Safety: Encourages individuals to take risks, share ideas, and engage in open dialogue without fear of criticism or humiliation. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth and learning, fostering a culture of continuous improvement.
  3. Contributor Safety: Individuals feel confident expressing their unique perspectives, actively contributing to decision-making processes, and taking ownership of their work. Collaboration and diverse viewpoints are valued and sought after.
  4. Challenger Safety: Empowers individuals to challenge the status quo, voice dissenting opinions, and ask difficult questions. Constructive conflicts are necessary for innovation and progress, enabling organizations to adapt and thrive in dynamic environments.
4 stages of psychological safety. Adapted from Tim Clark.

A study by Google, known as Project Aristotle, found that psychological safety was the most important factor in determining team effectiveness. Teams that lacked psychological safety struggled with coordination, communication, and collaboration, resulting in lower performance and productivity levels.

Organizations can act at the micro and macro levels to increase psychological safety within the workplace by considering the four essential steps:

1. Foster Inclusive Leadership:  Psychological safety starts at the top, with leaders setting the tone for the organization. 

  • Micro-level: As Cultural Architects, leaders should actively listen, value diverse perspectives, and encourage open dialogue. This sets an example for others and signals that psychological safety is a priority.
  • Macro-level: Implement leadership development programs that cultivate inclusive leadership skills and behaviors throughout the organization.

2. Encourage Open Communication: Create channels and platforms for open and transparent communication. Encourage employees to speak up, share their opinions, and express their concerns without fear of retaliation.

  • Micro-level: Create formal and informal channels, such as team meetings, town halls, feedback mechanisms, and digital platforms for sharing ideas and concerns. This empowers individuals to contribute their unique perspectives, fostering a sense of psychological safety. 
  • Macro-level: Organizations can establish communication guidelines at the macro level that promote respect, active listening, and constructive feedback.

3. Embrace Mistakes as Learning Opportunities: Build a culture that views mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning. 

  • Micro-level: Encourage employees to take risks, experiment, and learn from failures. Celebrate and share stories of resilience and growth following setbacks. Remove the fear of judgment or punishment.
  • Macro level: Organizations can implement learning and development programs that promote a growth mindset and create a safe space for employees to discuss and learn from their mistakes

4. Promote Collaboration & Team Support: Create an environment that values collaboration, teamwork, and support. Foster a sense of collective responsibility and emphasize that everyone’s contributions are essential for success. 

  • Micro-level: Create a supportive and inclusive team dynamic. 
  • Macro-level: Organizations can implement collaborative tools to establish team-building activities and recognize and reward collaborative efforts.

On the other hand, an absence of psychological safety can stifle diversity and hinder inclusion, collaboration, and growth. Here are three different consequences of a lack of psychological safety at work: 

1. Talent Retention: Without psychological safety, talented employees may feel stifled, undervalued, or marginalized, leading to lower job satisfaction and increased attrition rates. Research conducted by Gallup found that just 3 out of 10 employees feel like their opinions are valued at work compared to 7 out of 10 employees who don’t feel like they can actively contribute. In contrast, organizations prioritizing psychological safety experience higher employee retention rates and attract top talent.

2. High Turnover Rates: When employees feel unsafe speaking up, sharing concerns, or challenging the status quo, they may become disengaged, frustrated, or burnt out. This can increase turnover as employees seek more supportive and inclusive work environments. The cost of employee turnover is significant, both in terms of financial resources and the loss of institutional knowledge.

3. Organizational Culture: Fear, distrust, and a culture of silence can prevail in an environment devoid of psychological safety. Employees may be reluctant to take risks, offer innovative ideas, or collaborate openly, leading to stagnant organizational growth and limited creativity. This can hinder productivity and the ability to adapt to change, creating a toxic work atmosphere. 

4. Diversity of Thought: If we don’t strive to create psych safety, we miss out on the diversity of opinions, thoughts, and ideas. Employees who feel unsafe expressing their unique perspectives or challenging biases may go unheard, hindering innovation and creativity. 

Organizations that fail to cultivate psychological safety risk losing talented employees, experiencing higher turnover rates, and fostering a stagnant and unproductive work environment. Conversely, organizations prioritizing psychological safety create an environment where employees feel valued, empowered, and engaged, leading to  enhancing talent retention, driving high productivity, and creating a vibrant and inclusive organizational culture.