Using Psychological Safety to Drive Inclusion

Have you ever been in a meeting where you had a solution to a very pressing problem, but you didn’t say anything? Have you ever behaved in a way that you look back on and wonder if it may have upset or offended a colleague, but you did not check in with them after?

Many of us have been in these situations, but why don’t we offer our expertise or follow-up? It is likely because we do not feel safe enough to do so, and we struggle to practice inclusive and safe behaviors in our organization.


Inclusion is usually used in the context of “diversity and inclusion.” In this context, we can define inclusion as ensuring that everyone feels a sense of belonging, support, and safety in an organization. The concepts and practices of diversity, equity, and inclusion overlap greatly, and rightfully so. But, I invite you to consider a major component of inclusion as the methods, behaviors, and actions we take to make all the benefits of diversity come together and work. It’s how we make DE&I work and bring it alive.

So, what is psychological safety? Amy Edmondson, who is strongly held as a pioneer in the field, defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe from interpersonal risk-taking.” It is a major component of organizational culture. It isn’t risky to be ourselves, to admit mistakes, or feel defeated – to be vulnerable.

Why Important

How do they relate? In a world that relies more and more on interpersonal relationships, teams, collaboration, and collective work, psychological safety becomes a major cultural component that facilitates inclusive behaviors and actions that result in innovation and growth – both personally in the terms of knowledge sharing and learning, but also organizationally in terms of market advantage, productivity, and success.

Simply put, you cannot have inclusion without psychological safety. You will not be included if you don’t show up as your full self, but you cannot show up when doing so is risky to your reputation or credibility. You cannot share your thoughts and ideas if you fear they will be rejected or ridiculed.

Putting Words Into Practice

So, how do we create psychologically healthier cultures, truly practice inclusion, innovate, and gain competitive advantage? We remove fear, increase trust, and increase respect.

Amy Edmonds suggests three ways we can do that. First, we look at problems as learning opportunities removing the fear of getting the answer exactly right out of the gate. We can admit that we don’t know exactly what will happen with any one solution, so we gain everyone’s perspective.

Second, we acknowledge we can and will make mistakes, not have all the answers, and sometimes screw things up. This creates an environment where our colleagues are invited to join us in thinking and exploring.

Third, be curious and ask questions. We ask questions of ourselves, yes, but also ask them outwardly to hear different voices and perspectives. When we ask questions, we also listen to the answers without significant judgment so as not to evoke fear.

Additionally, Timothy Clark, in his “4 Stage of Psychological Safety” model suggests specific behaviors in each of four very distinct areas that exist within his model of psychological safety – inclusion, learning, contributing, and challenging. (You can hear more about this model in our recorded webinar.)

These behaviors include: expressing genuine gratitude and appreciation regardless of project or task success; introducing yourself to colleagues at the first chance you have to break the ice and set the tone of warmth and acceptance; sharing what you are learning (even if it is through mistakes!) with colleagues as it helps everyone learn and grow, and your enthusiasm may be motivational for others; own your contributions knowing that you are ultimately responsible for your growth, learning, and contributions for yourself, your team, and your organization; seek out and create diverse teams with diverse perspectives that bring divergent perspectives and thinking; and, respect and the expertise on your team to encourage learning and discussion as a result of “hearing from the experts”.

These may not be easy or comfortable at first, but their practice will go a long way to reducing fear and increasing trust, engagement, and psychological safety among our coworkers.

Employees and Leaders—Who is Responsible?

Isn’t psych safety and culture a leader’s job? It is everyone’s job. Yes, leadership settling, and modeling healthy company culture is critical, but we all have responsibility at all levels of the organization to co-create a culture that is healthy, supportive, and one in which we would like to work and thrive.
By maintaining attitudes and behaviors that reduce fear and increase trust, we are slowly shifting the company culture. We know the saying “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and it applies here. Let’s consider what would happen if leadership set the tone and modeled healthy behavior, but no one followed. Would culture change? Probably not. But, it is safe to assume that the same would work in reverse – employees and non-leaders can influence and sustain healthy cultures from the bottom up. We may find influencing culture this way to occur more slowly, but we can ask ourselves, “What’s there to lose here?”

Next Steps

Can you really have inclusion without psychological safety? Likely no. Without psychological safety, we can find ourselves in a position of having only policies, procedures, and checkboxes to execute our DEI endeavors. Efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion can appear transactional and performative. Without psychological safety, ideas, examples, and innovative ideas coming from talent like employee resource groups become theory without practice – ideas that are hard to create, communicate, and, most of all engage in because of the costs of having a difficult conversation, learning, potentially being wrong, and real change become too risky. But we don’t grow and learn without pushing ourselves and our groups or teams. During this growth, we can disagree and come into conflict. Utilizing psychologically safe practices to create healthy cultures can help us navigate these moments with respect, trust, and a common goal in mind.

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