I recently spoke with an executive who’s grappling with how to interpret some employee feedback. How could their employees experience high Psychological Safety but low culture Inclusion. Defining terms isn’t a super sexy part of DEI&B (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging) work, but it’s very useful when we get into real-life quandaries.
So what’s Psychological Safety? It’s “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves” (Amy Edmonson).
You might’ve heard about being a “whole person” at work. Psychological Safety is integral to designing companies (aka human systems) for adult human beings to grow and thrive.
Why? Because Psychological Safety is required for great “teaming” (how teams work together). For example, what happens when I constructively push, debate, bring unconventional ideas, and propose fresh projects? Will I have active support to explore? To take action? Psychological Safety is certainly about employee experience, but it’s also about managerial prowess (or lack thereof).
Psychological Safety asks the question, “will this company wither or thrive when presented with my perspective and idea?” This isn’t just a “nice to have” — it’s required for bolstering excellence and defeating stagnancy… which means it’s required for being highly market competitive. Research & Development requires Psychological Safety like fire needs air.
When interpersonal dynamics are strong, differences of opinion, ways of thinking, methods of problem solving, and ideas about how to get the job done are actively encouraged. And not just with a passing “good point!” but as desirable, worthwhile, actionable contributions.
This sounds nice, but am I just supposed to coddle my team or let them waste company resources on any fleeting idea?
First off, if you have a poor opinion of your team’s contributions then it’s on you for not professionally developing them. Or, worst-case scenario, if you’re actually looking for blind adherence, ask yourself why you expect human beings to behave like dogmatic soldiers.
But getting into the weeds, Psychological Safety is the opposite of coddling. Part of respecting a team includes challenging and encouraging them to level up and offering the tools to do so. It requires that perspectives presented productively — even when the perspective is that something isn’t working — are needed for companies to improve and remain relevant.
How do you know you “have” psychological safety?
It’s often visible in world-class team collaboration and the products/programs teams ship. But, crucially, not just 1 or 2 teams peppered throughout a company, but a trend over time.
Assessing Psychological Safety on a questionnaire requires some finesse.
Asking “Do you experience psychological safety at work?” doesn’t tell you much.
But asking about specifics can help. For example:
“What happens when you bring up an unusual product idea at a team meeting? What immediate response is there to you and/or to the idea? What happens immediately after? And over time?”
OK, this is all well and good, but this sounds like “inclusion.” What’s the difference?
Inclusion is about asking, “do people like me work at a place like this?”
There are important but relatively light-touch ways to include, such as celebrating holidays, adding language greetings and cuisines, adapting greetings to adjust for time zone differences, ensuring that women, queer, BIPOC, and alter-abled people aren’t left out of the company’s materials, and actively seeking out women, BIPOC, queer, and alter-abled people for company partnerships.
But there’s a deeper question, too. When we ask, “does a person like me do a thing like this?” we’re looking at a company’s core narrative. We’re asking, am I just an add-on? Or is my contribution valued? Yes, through title, compensation, advancement, and thought leadership… And also through attitude: Am I just “here” or am I valued?
Where do Psychological Safety and Inclusion overlap? You might have heard the concept of being a whole human at work. Psychological safety and Inclusion both speak to company culture and practices writ large. A policy of Inclusion is one thing, but the moment-by-moment experience is another.
If Psychological Safety is the ability to express oneself with more candor at work, inclusion is about whether the company prioritizes room for the person in the first place. It’s no longer good enough to recruit and hire. That’s step 1 and 1.5. Inclusion requires that company culture is deliberately designed to be as Psychologically Safe for as many kinds of people as possible.
Like John Gotman says about romantic couples, high quality relationships require that both parties influence one another. Couples who lack mutual influence have a low long-term success rate. Is there room to be heard and to influence company behavior? Together, Psychological Safety and Inclusion are synergistic. The two together is how you win the battle and the war.