The Role of Psychological Safety in Diversity and Inclusion

posted on July 3, 2020

June 22, 2020

By Amy C. Edmondson Ph.D, Psychology Today

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.

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, gendersexual 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.

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