The benefits of a psychologically safe workplace are unquestionable, and as such, it’s not surprising to see it taking a seat at the table. Also, given it is the foundation of an inclusive workplace, I am encouraged to see business after business sitting up and paying attention.
The trouble, however, is that psychological safety has become somewhat of a buzzword in the business world of late.
Like moths drawn to a flame, it’s easy to be enticed by the shining lights of higher revenue potential, better retention rates and increased productivity, without considering or committing to the deep work that’s needed to create a genuinely safe environment; one where every person feels they can be their authentic self in the workplace.
Understand the true meaning of psychological safety
The risk is not just in those businesses who may manipulate the term for their advantage, but in misunderstanding what it means, which can do more harm than good.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with an HR executive who was proud to tell me they created a culture where everyone felt comfortable saying and doing what they wanted. Here’s the thing, there is a stark difference between comfort and safety, and businesses that promote the former risk fuelling the fire of prejudice, essentially granting free will to speak out of turn. In doing this, leaders fail to protect their most vulnerable people from harm.
Unfortunately, I’ve also come across many businesses whose inclusivity pledges have transpired to be futile – token gestures at best. I’ve lost count of the statements I’ve heard, and behaviours I’ve witnessed that generalise women as inferior to men, as incompetent, unintelligent or too emotional to do their job. I’ve seen hostile microaggressions play out in meetings held to address the very issue of diversity and inclusion, and I’ve seen people using their power and privilege to intimidate.
No matter how subtle, unconscious and habitual, socialisation through a lifetime runs deep.
I believe myself to be a positive person, always a glass half full. But when people tell me that inequality does not exist in the UK or that our workplaces are fair and equal spaces, I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when someone felt it was appropriate to discuss eugenics with me. That person, without hesitation, said they genuinely believe that white people are more intelligent than black people. It is moments like this that remind me that we still have a mountain to climb.
Benefit from creating a genuinely inclusive, safe space
The benefits of creating a workplace that is truly safe for all are plentiful. Today I am sharing with you just four:
Teams that feel empowered to share their perspectives, significantly when their opinions differ from the rest of the group, can more fully leverage each member’s knowledge and talent to the team. These teams are more likely to take the initiative and consider the complete picture of each situation. This, in turn, enables the team to innovate and find effective solutions.
Build a strong feedback culture
Psychological safety is also critical to a team’s ability to give and receive candid and respectful feedback. If your organisation wants to build a stronger feedback culture, look at employee perceptions of psychological safety as a starting point.
At a time of huge complexity and uncertainty, true psychological safety in our workplaces, which Edmondson summarises as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, is required more than ever before.
Create allies who can interrupt harm
The sad reality is that when harm occurs, someone in a position of privilege, often a leader or manager, has failed to interrupt. In other words, an ally has existed, but they have not stepped in to protect the victim.
Workplace confrontation is something we would all rather avoid, of course. However, being able to “call-in” or ‘call out’ prejudice by arming ourselves with timely expressions and intentional language will enable us to tackle harm in the workplace and contribute to cultures of inclusion, belonging and psychological safety.
We are all role models in the business. If you are in proximity of power, which includes privilege, it is vital to ensure that everyone can turn up to work as their true authentic self. No one person can create an inclusive and courageous safe space – we are all part of levelling the playing field. It is time for leaders to commit to holding people accountable and, most importantly, interrupt harm when they see it. Without allies, the needle will only move so far, and workplaces will never be truly safe.
Remove the pressure to code-switch or assimilate for those in underrepresented groups
The turn of my twenties and the transition from school to work brought a challenge I had not anticipated. I was a free spirit talkative, authentic and open-book of sorts in school. Despite having its challenges, I felt I belonged at school.
But as I stepped into the workplace in my early 20s, I experienced first-hand the exhaustion of trying to fit in. I started to edit myself in a majority white workforce through fear of being isolated or excluded. This was a pre-pandemic world when rigid working hours and desk-based days were largely seen as the only way. Quite frankly, it meant there was no escaping this toxic environment for me.
When the heavy fog of the pandemic rolled in, and workplaces closed, the entire nation retreated to their homes. The challenges of living, working and playing in the same space were unique to our circumstances. But for myself and many others who identify as being in an underrepresented group. I was finally safe to be my true self, in my own space – I could exhale.
I no longer had to dodge curious hands trying to investigate a new hairstyle, I did not have to put on a soft voice to avoid being called “aggressive”, and I didn’t have to fake a smile all day to pretend I was having a good day, even if I wasn’t.
It is little surprise then that research carried out by Future Forum found that 97% of Black workers would prefer to continue remote working or a hybrid model moving forwards. And when asked if they wanted to return to the workplace full time, only 3% of Black employees said yes, compared to 21% of white workers who said they were eager to get back.
There is an important lesson for business leaders in all of this. Remote working has provided a safe space where many people have felt they can be their authentic selves. It has removed the pressure many blacks or ethnic minority people feel to code-switch or assimilate.
We live in systems that have not been created for underrepresented individuals, where plenty of people go to work dreading the consequences. Covering your uniqueness, difference, history, and voice is exhausting and prohibiting.