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Diversity and Inclusion

Why psychological safety is a critical path to inclusion

Business problems today are far too complex for any one person to solve. That’s why the most effective leaders—rather than relying solely on their own judgement and decisions—turn to others to find solutions.

Research from the likes of ForbesBCGNorth Carolina State UniversityThe Center for Talent Innovation show that bringing together a team with a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives naturally lends itself to innovative thinking.

To properly leverage diversity of thought on your team, it’s important to draw out and capitalise on different opinions – even actively solicit conflict. The way that innovative teams generate great ideas is through a process and a culture known as creative abrasion, where ideas are productively challenged.

If you bring together two or more people with different perspectives on a challenge who are willing to both advocate for their point of view and also really listen, they’ll come away with a third solution that’s distinct from what they originally came to the table with – and stronger.

Trust is the essential starting point for true inclusion in your team.

By trust we mean more than just the essential faith in a person’s abilities or a familiarity that comes from knowing someone for many years.

We really mean a vulnerability trust sometimes called psychological safety where people feel comfortable to take interpersonal risks, like speaking up against a popular idea or giving feedback they know will be tough to hear.

So, what do we mean by psychological safety?

Psychological safety, a term coined and defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, is a belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. In short, it is how comfortable individuals are with taking risks and being vulnerable with their team.

It’s both a climate and a shared belief which lays the foundation for every member of your team to bring their whole selves to work and be truly inclusive and innovative.

The three central tenets of psychological safety are:

  • Work to learn: Let individuals learn from their mistakes – failure is a feature, not a bug, of success
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility: No one’s perfect (not even you!) – recognise it and move on
  • Be curious: Avoid the temptation to play the blame game. Instead, get curious and problem-solve collaboratively

Psychological safety has real, measurable benefits beyond simply building a sense of inclusiveness. Amy Edmondson’s research found that the level of safety in a team predicted its effectiveness.

More recently a major internal study of team effectiveness at Google supported Edmondson’s findings. In 2012 Google set out to decode what makes the best teams tick, and found the best teams were a result of putting the right people together.

But data from studying 180 teams over several years indicated otherwise. In fact, the “who” doesn’t matter — the best teams are those with a certain set of norms and behaviours, by far the most important of which is psychological safety.

Google now considers psychological safety the single most important factor in building a successful team.

So, what has psychological safety to do with inclusion?

Everything. Psychological safety is critical to fostering inclusion and innovation. It matters because it leads to healthier, more productive, and more inclusive teams. Where there’s psychological safety, there’s a sense of dependability in one another, role clarity, and intrinsic motivation to work hard.

When you have a team of people with a whole lot of opinions, good outcomes cannot happen without inclusion. Inclusion is the job of every single member on a team and a core part of inclusion is creating psychological safety for your team members.

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Want to learn how you can build a more inclusive workplace? Check out our insights, articles, guides and more on the Resources section of our website.

Why psychological safety is a critical path to inclusion

If you have any thoughts, feedback or suggestions on why psychological safety is critical for inclusion,

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Fiona Young (she/her)

Having previously led Learning and Development for 3,000 people at Europe’s leading venture builder, Blenheim Chalcot, Fiona knows a thing or two about how to build high performance culture. As Content Director at Hive Learning, Fiona pioneered the organisation's leading guided content programmes which are designed to turn learning into action. Most recently, Fiona led the inception, development and delivery of Inclusion Works by Hive Learning - the world’s first diversity and inclusion programme focused on turning unconscious bias into conscious action - created from over 1,000 leading sources.