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October 11, 2023

The What, Why, and How of Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety can mean the difference between inclusion and community or exclusion and isolation in the workplace. As diversity, equity, and inclusion advocates, it is critical to understand Psychological Safety's role in enhancing or hindering organizational DEI efforts. 

In a recent episode of The DEI ER, my weekly LinkedIn Audio Live series, we spoke with Dr. Xavier Clark, Ph.D., M.P.A., about the relationship between diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and psychological safety.  

Dr. Clark is a critical organizational and luxury fashion scholar, and we are so thankful for their time and insights. Our conversation sparked something in me that I want to share with you. We at Raven Solomon Enterprises are grateful to Xavier for his time and the knowledge shared!  

As Dr. Clark put it:

"Psychological Safety is a person's perception and ability to bring both inter and intrapersonal aspects of themselves to work." He continued, "Psychological Safety is the aperture through which people can bring their full selves to work." 

Dr. Xavier Clark, PhD, MPA

What is Psychological Safety?

Dr. Clark referenced Timothy Clark's Four Levels of Psychological Safety, which is how many DEI practitioners frame their understanding of this vital concept.  

Timothy Clark has coined four levels of Psychological Safety, each of which is vital within an organization. 

1.) Inclusion Safety:

  • Team members feel safe belonging to the team. They are comfortable being present, do not feel excluded, and feel wanted and appreciated.  
  • Authenticity thrives when inclusion safety is present, and people build genuine connections. When inclusion safety is lacking, superiority and hierarchy thrive, and barriers are maintained.  

2.) Learner Safety:

  • Team members can learn by asking questions. Team members here may be able to experiment, make (and admit) small mistakes, and ask for help.  
  • Learning and mistakes are encouraged when learner safety is present and vulnerability is encouraged. When learner safety is lacking, mistakes are punished, and execution trumps innovation. 

3.) Contributor Safety:

  • Team members feel safe contributing their ideas without fear of embarrassment or ridicule.
  • When contributor safety is present, team members thrive under accountability, and roles are clear. Small wins are celebrated. When contributor safety is lacking, autonomy is given with little guidance, and team members feel used and neglected.  

4.) Challenger Safety:

  • Team members can question others' (including those in authority) ideas or suggest significant changes to ideas, plans, or ways of working.  
  • When challenger safety is present, voicing dissenting opinions or constructive feedback is encouraged, and disagreement is productive. When challenger safety is lacking, dissent is silenced, and challengers are punished and isolated.  
Image Credit: Action-Strategies-By-Design and Timothy R. Clark

Psychological Safety does not mean there is a presence of pure, constant comfort; quite the contrary. In spaces that are psychologically safe, team members feel comfortable embracing the vulnerability that is required to ask for help or admit to a mistake.

As we always say, there is no comfort in the growth zone and no growth in the comfort zone.  

Why is Psychological Safety important?

Psychological Safety is important for a variety of reasons in both interpersonal and organizational means. Psychological safety can:  

Enhance DEI efforts.  

  • Psychological Safety, essential for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), promotes authenticity by enabling individuals to express their true selves without fear. When employees feel secure, they openly share diverse perspectives, experiences, and concerns. Authenticity facilitates meaningful conversations about DEI issues, leading to better understanding, reduced biases, and more effective solutions. 

Increase team performance.

  •  Psychological Safety enhances team performance by fostering an environment where members feel safe to voice ideas, take calculated risks, and learn from failures. This openness promotes better communication, collaboration, and innovation, leading to improved problem-solving and overall team effectiveness. 

Boost creativity and innovation.

  • Psychological Safety boosts team creativity and innovation by providing a secure environment where individuals can freely share unconventional ideas without fear of criticism. This encourages diverse perspectives, stimulates open discussions, and emboldens risk-taking. As team members feel valued and supported, they contribute unique insights, leading to creative solutions and a culture of innovation that thrives on experimentation and learning from mistakes. 

How to Cultivate Psychological Safety

Creating psychologically safe environments won't happen overnight, and equity and inclusion efforts must be integrated into this work to develop true Psychological Safety. Below are RSE's five steps to cultivating Psychological Safety:  

1.) Lead Inclusively

  • Establish a leadership style that actively includes all voices and perspectives. Encourage participation from diverse team members, ensuring that everyone's input is valued and considered in decision-making processes. 

2.) Embrace Vulnerability

  • Demonstrate vulnerability as a leader by openly sharing challenges, mistakes, and uncertainties. This sets an example that admitting fallibility is safe, creating an atmosphere where others are also comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns. 

3.) Avoid the Path of Least Resistance

  • Refrain from choosing the easiest or most convenient option when making decisions or solving problems. Instead of simply going with the familiar or comfortable choice, this principle encourages actively seeking out alternative approaches, considering diverse perspectives, and engaging in thoughtful analysis to arrive at a more robust and well-informed solution, even if it requires more effort or involves challenging the status quo. 

4.) Value Dissent

  • Celebrate dissenting opinions and differing viewpoints as essential components of robust decision-making. Encourage team members to voice their disagreements constructively, fostering an atmosphere where diverse perspectives contribute to well-rounded solutions. 

5.) Ask Questions

  • Foster curiosity by consistently asking questions and seeking input from team members. This demonstrates an openness to learning, creates space for diverse insights, and reinforces the idea that sharing thoughts and engaging in meaningful discussions without fear of judgment is safe.

In Conclusion:

Psychological Safety is pivotal in professional settings, shaping inclusion, community, and innovation. Dr. Xavier Clark's insights emphasize its role in DEI, and Timothy Clark's Four Levels outline its dimensions: inclusion, learning, contribution, and challenge. Psychological Safety fosters authenticity, propels team performance, and sparks innovation. 

To cultivate it: lead inclusively, embrace vulnerability, avoid easy paths, value dissent, and ask questions. Integrated efforts create an environment where diverse voices thrive, contributing to a more inclusive, equitable, and innovative workplace. 

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Raven Solomon

Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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