We tend to think of achieving racial equity primarily as a matter of large actions such as major programmatic, structural, and cultural change. But the small actions of leaders—ways of communicating in the flow of work—also have critical impact. An advantage of small actions is that they make a difference right now.
Fostering psychological safety at work
The day-to-day, moment-to-moment ways leaders engage with individuals and teams are a major determinant of psychological safety. This means that people feel safe to speak up about concerns, negative feelings, and disagreements. People can trust what they say will be understood, not attacked or discounted. They know differing views are intentionally elicited and explored, not suppressed or negated.
More than 20 years of research has shown that psychological safety enhances learning, innovation, and performance. Also, inviting everyone to say what they really feel—including their concerns and challenges—facilitates motivation. Making sure each person on a team has a chance to speak openly and honestly is a major determinant of high team performance, even among high-powered professionals in the tech industry.
Studies have also shown that it is inherently difficult in group situations for people to speak up with views contrary to others. This tendency to silence is heightened when work is fast-paced and pressured. Even highly experienced professionals need repeated, explicit invitations and support to consistently speak up and to express negative feelings and disagreements.
These factors are magnified for people of color. Being different from others adds an extra psychological and emotional burden to fit in—an “emotional tax.” This reduces the sense of safety and freedom to take risks, make mistakes, and bring one’s best skills and talents forward. If it is hard to express feelings and thoughts openly and honestly, the ability to work toward motivation and a full sense of collegial participation will be significantly hampered.
While psychological safety is relatively simple in concept and execution, it is astonishingly fragile. As humans, we were hardwired early in our evolution to be highly sensitive to the environment in order to survive. In modern times, these survival systems make us highly sensitive to each other and, often outside of our awareness, even small stresses such as a mildly harsh remark or an opinion stated a bit too strongly or the emergence of disagreements can make situations feel unsafe and cause people to go into silence. These tendencies are greatly magnified and more persistent for people of color who have had to adapt to a long history of oppression, disadvantage, and stereotyping.
Maintaining an open and inclusive workplace
Even with small degrees of time and performance pressure, survival reactions tend to evoke a driven, analytic, task-oriented, quick problem-solving way of being. In this state, we are prone to take the first good idea we hear rather than inviting differing ideas. Under pressure, we become less curious and less open. It is harder to elicit and hold differing views because it is hard to tolerate uncertainty in order to allow solutions to emerge from group deliberation. And, feelings may not be inquired about at all.
This rational, problem-solving way of being without inquiry about feelings can be invisible, because it has been such a dominant way of being in our Western professional culture. It can just seem to be part of normal, everyday life.
Due to the fragility and invisibility of psychological safety, the real challenge is sustaining it. Leaders are human too, and this means they are always at risk for survival reactions and blind spots. Despite my commitment to inclusiveness, in my 25 years as an organizational leader, all too often I found myself acting in ways counter to my highest values due to my reactions to the inevitable pressures of work.
I learned how to manage my own inconsistencies from leaders I admired who had passionate, high-performing, inclusive teams. They constantly paid attention to how they were communicating. They constantly encouraged open, honest conversations and made sure everyone was included. They acknowledged and apologized when they lost curiosity about others’ thoughts and feelings due to pressure or stress. They constantly checked in with individuals and teams to see how they were doing.
4 ways to advance equity in the workplace
How can we sustain psychological safety in order to promote each person’s highest performance and well being, regardless of race? Here are just four ways to start. Action ideas for each tip are included in the table below.
Check in with yourself to adjust your own moment-to-moment ways of being, attitudes, and mindsets. At any given moment, we can fall out of our highest aspirations to achieve psychological safety due to time and performance pressures. So, we need to cultivate self-awareness as much as possible in each and every moment.
Guide conversations with focus on the how versus the content of communication. For conscious leaders, the how of communicating is much more important than the content. The how of communication determines how likely employees will take care of the content with passion and high motivation.
Participate with humility and vulnerability. Repeatedly asking for people to offer differing views, even to our own views, is not easy. We have let go of attachment to our most strongly held beliefs to be curious and risk finding out we are wrong.
Ensure ongoing two-way feedback about how things are going. It is impossible to be sure of how people are feeling unless we ask. Do they feel included? Do they feel comfortable disagreeing?
The bottom line
Diversity is not sufficient to achieve racial equity—we need a psychologically safe culture for everyone. That starts with each leader’s self-awareness, vulnerability, and humility: self-awareness because our minds can so easily be hijacked by the survival brain; vulnerability because we have to ask for and carefully listen to disagreements about things we really care about; and humility because we must admit when we are wrong and that we need advice and help.
As a leadership consultant and coach, Neil brings a broad and deep understanding of normal human psychology and growth from his experience as a former physician, researcher in neurophysiology, psychotherapist, organizational leader, and quality improvement consultant. His spiritual practice in Buddhism has informed his intention to help others manifest their highest skills and values even in the most complex and difficult situations. He lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington where he hikes in the forest nearly every day.