Dr. Jacinta Jimenez

BetterUp's Head of Coaching

Posted in: Diversity and Inclusion


Why Psychological Safety at Work Matters

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Why Psychological Safety at Work Matters

As a Latina working for a technology company, reading the recent Atlantic cover story, Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women, struck a chord with me. This, along with a number of recent news stories from brave women in tech who are speaking out about the obstacles they are experiencing adds color to the why behind the findings that women are more than twice as likely to quit the tech industry as men. The evidence is alarming, but the underlying reasons are even more so.

Women are more than twice as likely to quit the tech industry as men.Click To Tweet

According to the Center for Talent Innovation (cited in the above-mentioned article), “undermining behavior from managers” is a major factor in women dropping out of tech. In fact, the Elephant in the Valleysurvey found that out of the 210 women interviewed, 87% had witnessed demeaning comments from their colleagues.

The survey cited above also found that 47% of respondents have been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to take on (e.g., note-taking, ordering food, etc.), 66% felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities because of gender, and 40% feel the need to speak less about their family to be taken more seriously.

Despite decades of programs and policies intended to amplify the presence of women in technology, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in tech jobs and continue to leave in high rates. In fact, a longitudinal study of over 700 U.S. companies found that diversity training programs have little positive effect. Research shows that the typical diversity training programs do not create lasting change and in some cases, can even be harmful. Even though there is little evidence for these programs effecting lasting change, companies continue with the same “one-and-done” approaches, like mandatory training.

Organizations need to continue to do more than improve pipeline channels, lean-in to women at the point in which their career and family demands are at their highest, offer mentorship, and audit for salary inequalities. It’s vital that companies rethink traditional approaches to diversity training programs and invest in creating and fostering Psychologically Safe environments.

What is Psychological Safety?

Safety, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, is a “basic human need.” To support high performing teams, creating Psychologically Safe work environments is critical to not only basic human decency, but retention. So what does that mean?

The term Psychological Safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking;” establishing a climate of Psychological Safety allows space for people to speak up and share their ideas.

Edmondson and Harvard Business School professor Jeff Polzer say that when it comes to creating Psychologically Safe environments, establishing norms is critical to success and participation. And for leaders, speaking out is actually less important than how we react and respond to other team members.  

To tie this back to the Atlantic cover story I mentioned earlier, creating a Psychologically Safe environment can also act as a buffer against undermining behavior that is driving so many women away from tech. When viewed in contrast to healthy, Psychologically Safe group norms, this sort of behavior cannot go unnoticed.

6 ways team leaders can create team norms that foster a climate of Psychological Safety:

As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, especially when it comes to building and maintaining a climate of Psychological Safety. Team cultures reflect the actions and reactions of their leaders. Leaders who fail to establish and support Psychologically Safe team environments for their teammates can cause irreparable damage to the organization.

Creating a Psychologically Safe environment starts with coaching that focuses on deep behavior change that starts with each individual and spreads throughout the organization.

Ultimately, creating a Psychologically Safe environment starts with coaching that focuses on deep behavior change that starts with each individual and spreads throughout the organization. Changing cultural norms requires progressive learning, by everyone in the organization. Having a coach to guide these processes at the individual level ensures that these important behavior changes are being taught correctly and reinforced in real-time through experiential learning.

To establish and maintain a Psychologically Safe work climate leaders must consistently model inclusive behaviors in order to build out new team norms over time. Here are 6 ways you can promote Psychological Safety in your team:

Practice genuine curiosity

Ask team members to weigh in on their thoughts and expertise. This is especially important to practice at times in which their opinions may challenge your thinking.

Recognize courageous acts

When a team member makes themselves vulnerable by offering a new idea, asking a question, or sharing a mistake; it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate these acts of courage.

Promote respect

If a team member engages in undermining, shaming, or any behavior that discourages others to speak up such as saying “that doesn’t make any sense,” don’t condone or ignore this behavior. Intervene and share how such statements can impede creativity and innovation, including the sharing of concerns, ideas, and questions.

Foster candid conversation

Pay attention to how teams operate. Is everyone given an opportunity to speak up? Are some more silent than others? Work to foster equal speaking time for everyone.

Hold retrospectives

Holding retrospectives following major projects creates a norm of learning and growing and gives the team space to acknowledge mistakes, wins, and opportunities to develop.

Empower from a place of privilege

If you are someone who is not underrepresented in your community, make efforts to leverage your privilege to empower underrepresented colleagues. Examples of this include highlighting team members’ accomplishments among others and recommending them for high visibility assignments and projects.

Creating an environment of Psychological Safety takes conscious awareness and a commitment to learning new behaviors, but the tradeoff is more than worth it — and necessary. Beyond the obvious advantages of avoiding groupthink and creating an efficient team, dedicating resources to establishing the behaviors that lend themselves to Psychological Safety will help you retain talented female teammates who deserve to have their seat at the table. Long-term, your entire organization will benefit.

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