The Role of Psychological Safety in Diversity and Inclusion

Without it, true DIB is even more of a challenge

Posted Jun 22, 2020

Imagine a diverse workplace in which all employees felt a genuine sense of inclusion and belonging.  It’s unlikely you work in such an organization today. But it’s clear that every organization, public and private sector alike, is increasingly aware of the need to get to work on making this a reality.  I’ve spent over 20 years studying workplaces in healthcare delivery, high tech, the drug industry, consumer products, and more, where people with diverse skills and backgrounds must work together effectively to accomplish challenging goals, and one consistent finding from this research is that psychological safety plays a central role in their success. 

Psychological safety – an environment in which people believe that they can speak up candidly with ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes – is vital to leveraging the benefits of diversity, because it can help make inclusion a reality.  In brief, psychological safety is about enabling candor. Inclusion is necessary for mutual learning – and mutual learning is necessary to progress in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.  Extensive academic literature on psychological safety has demonstrated its powerful association with learning and performance in teams and organizations. 

Today we know that although diversity can be created through deliberate hiring practices, inclusion does not automatically follow.  To begin with, everyone hired may not find themselves included in important discussions and decisions.  Going deeper, having a diverse workforce most certainly does not guarantee that everyone in your organization feels a sense of belonging.  In particular, when no one at the top of the organization looks like you, it obviously makes it harder to feel you belong.  

Christina, WOC in Tech Chat via Unsplash
Diversity without inclusion is meaningless.
Source: Christina, WOC in Tech Chat via Unsplash

Each of these three terms – diversity, inclusion, and belonging, often abbreviated as DIB – thus represents a different, interrelated, important goal to be achieved.  The three goals range from the relatively objective (workforce diversity) to the highly subjective (do I feel that I belong here?).  Inclusion lies in-between the relatively objective and fully subjective and is more likely to be experienced as real when a workplace is higher in psychological safety because diverse perspectives are more likely to be heard.  Clearly, diverse perspectives cannot be heard if they are not expressed, which is where psychological safety comes in.  More simply, it is difficult to feel a sense of belonging when one feels psychologically unsafe.  

In general, the research shows that the higher the uncertainty and need for learning in a given set of tasks, the more psychological safety is vital to successful achievement of those tasks. This is why psychological safety has been shown to be a significant factor in predicting the performance of teams in healthcare delivery, high-tech, and other cognitively and emotionally challenging and uncertain endeavors.  

Few goals could involve more emotionally challenging and uncertain paths to achievement than that of building equitable, engaged, inclusive workplaces, where people feel they belong regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or cultural heritage.  Thus, psychological safety is not only characteristic of such inclusive organizations, it is also needed to design and implement the necessary changes to get there. 

Measurement of success in achieving diversity and inclusion goals is another issue affected by psychological safety.  When an organizational goal is more subjective than objective (meaning it can best be measured by assessing subjective perceptions), psychological safety is more necessary in achieving – and measuring – it. For instance, there is no way to know if you’re achieving the goal, of say, belonging, without broad and candid input from people in different groups.  

Building a fearless, inclusive organization that realizes the benefits of diversity through greater inclusion and belonging, is the most important goal for any leader today – whether public and private sector.  This is as true for enabling performance as it is for promoting fairness. The tidal wave of harassment claims that started in 2017 showed the costs of failing to create a psychologically safe workplace for women.  This year’s painful confrontation of racial inequities in society have dramatically increased attention to diversity and inclusion, while also dramatically increasing the ambition of well-led organizations to act swiftly and effectively to make a positive difference. 

I am not arguing that a singular focus on psychological safety is a strategy for building diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Building psychological safety in an organization is only one – albeit, important – element of an effective, iterative, learning-oriented approach to change.  A set of interrelated goals related to hiring, training, promoting, and learning must go hand in hand with efforts to shift the workplace climate.  

Great organizations must continue to attract, hire, and retain a diverse workforce because their leaders understand that that is where good ideas come from, and talented applicants will be drawn to work for those organizations.  But these leaders also recognize that hiring for diversity is not enough.  They also must care about whether or not employees can bring their full selves to work; whether they can belong in the fullest sense to the community inside the organization.  In short, leaders who care about diversity must care about psychological safety, just as those who care about psychological safety must also care about diversity, inclusion, and belonging.  

References

Source: Adapted from Edmondson, A.C. (2019) The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety for learning, innovation and growth. New York: Wiley; Chapter 8.