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Why Inclusion Can’t Exist Without Psychological Safety

In 2019 (before the world went topsy turvy), I flew to London to attend the prestigious Thinkers50 gala. Completely unexpectedly, I had been named to the “Radar,” a list of 30 management thinkers whose ideas would one day shape the world, as part of what’s been described as the “Oscars of Management Thinking.”

Anyway. At that gala, I also cheered on as Dr. Amy Edmondson won a well-deserved award for being the #1 thinker in the world. Her research on psychological safety was changing lives, hearts, minds and yes, organizations.

I became completely enamored by her work on psychological safety.

And then…as she gave a touching acceptance speech of how this award was three decades in the making…it all clicked into place on how it connected with inclusion.

Ruchika and her mum, Seema at the Thinkers50 Gala in London, 2019

What is Psychological Safety?

Imagine you’re in a high-stakes meeting at work. You’ve got peers and managers to either side of you and there are some serious power dynamics in the room.

You’re a woman of color, one of the only or maybe THE only. You’re fairly new to your role and the company. But you know this for sure: your colleagues are overlooking something critical in the plans they’re making.

Do you say it, even though you don’t have the status, privilege, or seniority of the white guy next to you? Do you put forth your idea, even though it’s a risk to how you’ll be perceived?

If you’re shaking your head and squirming with discomfort, you’re NOT alone.

But if you’re nodding and thinking, yeah, I’d feel comfortable saying something, then it sounds like you have something immensely important at your workplace: psychological safety.

Why is psychological safety vital to inclusion?

Groundbreaking work on psychological safety has found that where such safety exists – especially in very tense and high-risk situations, such as neonatal intensive care units in a hospital – it doesn’t matter who you are or what your rank is: anyone’s idea can be heard, not just the most powerful person’s in the room.

More so, your idea may not be the winning one, but you know that you won’t lose status, or be ignored (or worse) humiliated for putting your idea forth. You could be a junior woman of color on the team, and still feel safe speaking up, sharing your ideas, and taking risks.

That is psychological safety, and that’s what creates inclusive and innovative teams and workplaces.

Research finds that teams with high growth and innovation have high psychological safety, but it’s not just that: psychological safety is how we create inclusive cultures at work, which lead to innovative problem-solving (and the myriad other benefits of diverse thinking and experiences).

You should never feel shame or awkwardness to take a risk. You should never feel that you might lose status or be considered “less than” to sharing your ideas.

One of the reasons why I believe corporate diversity efforts stall or fail is because they don’t address the people aspect of it. People need to feel psychologically safe more than they need to attend a company-wide “diversity program.”

When it comes to really moving the needle, leaders and managers must investigate their own biases and areas of privilege. They must ask themselves, “How do we create psychological safety in our teams? How do we create space for all people to speak up and take risks?”

If you’re a leader or manager, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions – and let me know your answers! And for anyone, if you’ve worked with a leader or manager who made you feel safe taking risks at work, hit reply and let me know: what did they do? How did they do it?

I can’t wait to hear your stories. There is no doubt that taking risks and failing is non-negotiable for creating an innovative and high-growth team and environment – not to mention an inclusive one.


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