How to Foster Psychological Safety & Belonging at Work
When it comes to creating a safe and stable work environment, 2020 has brought several unanticipated and unprecedented challenges. In addition to the massive shift to working from home and the economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, we’ve also seen growing awareness of systemic racism and a desire to speak out against injustice and inequality, both on an individual and company level.
What role do managers and leaders have in this fast-changing and unpredictable environment? One of their biggest responsibilities is to create an environment of psychological safety, belonging, and inclusion for employees of all backgrounds.
My course, Fostering Psychological Safety and Belonging on Teams, looks at concrete steps managers and leaders can take to better understand their employees’ needs and create inclusive work environments. In this post, I’ll preview three steps managers can take to promote psychological safety on teams. Be sure to check out the full course for an in-depth look at psychological safety, belonging, and inclusion as well as plenty of practical activities to help you apply these concepts with your team.
Last Updated December 2021
A Manager’s Guide to Creating Psychological Safety, Inclusion and Belonging on Teams | By Shelley Osborne, Udemy Learning TeamExplore Course
What do we mean by psychological safety, belonging, and inclusion?
Psychological safety is a term coined by Amy Edmonson that means that there is a shared belief among team members that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It means that within a team environment, team members feel comfortable proposing new ideas without fear of judgment, they feel safe pushing back or voicing dissent when they disagree with something, and they know that it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes, because their team will look out for them and give feedback when needed if they see potential problems.
Inclusion means that the people on your team feel their unique backgrounds and perspectives are acknowledged and respected, and that they are able to fully participate in their organization regardless of their differences from others. Examples of inclusion in practice are things like sharing the agenda for meetings in advance to allow internal processors time to prepare and reflect and making a conscientious effort to attribute ideas to the person who brought them up first.
Belonging means that the people on your team are welcomed and able to be their authentic selves at work. Employees must feel acknowledged and respected and given opportunities to participate in the activities of their organization as their authentic selves. Belonging is personal, and looks and feels different for all of us, but the common feature of belonging for most people is that they feel comfortable being themselves, respected, and safe from harmful judgment.
Research shows the value of building inclusive, psychologically safe workplaces in creating productive and innovative organizations. As managers or leaders, we can help create the conditions for all employees to feel like they belong, foster a more innovative and creative workplace, and help our employees thrive. Creating environments where all people feel psychologically safe means that all experiences and viewpoints are included, and it makes our work stronger. Let’s take a look at three steps managers can take to foster psychological safety on their teams.
3 ways to foster psychological safety
1. Listen actively and engage with all members of your team
One of the most important ways of fostering psychological safety is by showing our team members that we’re actively listening and engaged in our conversations with them.
But what exactly is active listening? It helps to consider it in relation to its opposite, distractive listening. Distractive listening is when a listener is distracted by their phone, email, thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner, etc. When one person in a conversation is distracted, this can also cause the other person to lose their focus and train of thought.
When we are actively listening, we’re not thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner or responding to emails. We’re also not thinking about how we’re going to respond to the other person or waiting for our turn to talk. Rather, we’re mindful and present and truly focused on what someone is saying to us. We’re paying attention to the speaker’s body language and tone and making eye contact.
Here are a few ways to practice active listening:
- Use open and positive body language.
Use your body language and facial expressions to indicate that you’re paying attention to and empathizing with what the person is saying.
- Make eye contact.
Look directly at the speaker when they’re talking, and when you’re talking to them. If you’re on a video call with a remote camera, look at your webcam to give the appearance that you’re making eye contact with them. Don’t look at their image on the screen — or worse — your own image.
- Focus on the person speaking and eliminate distractions.
We are all constantly bombarded these days by texts, Slack messages, emails, and phone calls, but that doesn’t mean we have to respond to them right away. Put your phone away and silence your desktop notifications. Show the speaker you’re listening by focusing on what they’re saying, not your technology.
2. Show an understanding of other people’s perspectives and assume the best intent
We are often so wrapped up in our experiences that we fail to empathize and understand other people’s perspectives and how they see a situation. This can lead to us assuming the wrong intent about someone’s actions, thinking they’re doing something just to annoy us or because they’re incompetent. The truth is, however, that most people are not trying to be the villain of your story — they’re trying to be the hero of their own.
A great tool we can use to help us assume best intent and understand how we jump from observations to conclusions is the “Ladder of Inference.” It helps us understand the mental process that we go through to come to our conclusions. Often, we don’t look at the full data when we observe something and we tend to interpret it based on our experiences, so the conclusions are not always right.
For example, let’s say you’re proposing a new project to your boss. You’ve worked hard on this initiative and feel really excited about it. However, on the morning you’re supposed to present, life gets in the way. Your spouse, who was scheduled to watch the kids during your presentation, has a work emergency and you have to reschedule your presentation.
Your manager has a packed schedule, and because you asked to reschedule, she thinks you’re behind on your work and not respectful of her time. As a result, she finds many flaws with your proposal and decides not to support it rather than giving you a chance to address her feedback. The next time you propose a project, she automatically assumes that your proposal isn’t good because she doesn’t think you’re a hard worker.
By understanding how the Ladder of Inference works, we can better understand the conclusions and the assumptions people make. Let’s take a look at the steps of the ladder:
- At the very bottom, we have the observed data, the reality, and facts. In this example, the facts would be “You set up a meeting to present a project proposal, but had to reschedule.”
- Your boss then added meaning to these observations, that you must be behind or not care about her time, by interpreting them from her own perspective.
- Next, she drew conclusions based on these interpreted facts and assumptions. The conclusion in this example is that your project proposal wasn’t good or worthy of pursuing.
- These conclusions were then used to reinforce her beliefs, and she took action based on those beliefs, assuming your later proposals weren’t good and not supporting them.
Unfortunately, many people have a tendency to climb the Ladder of Inference and jump to conclusions based on interpretations rather than facts. Before climbing the ladder, pause and ask yourself what you are thinking and why. What assumptions are you making about the situation? Put yourself in your teammate’s shoes — are they really doing this to annoy you, or could something else be going on? Use questions and feedback to get to the heart of the issue at hand and uncover all of the facts before you draw conclusions.
When it comes down to it, we’re all human, and we all have the same fundamental needs and desires — to be loved and cared for, to have a purpose, to feel respected and appreciated. Keep the Ladder of Inference in mind when working with your team, and don’t forget to consider each individual’s context.
3. Be inclusive in interpersonal settings
Being inclusive in interpersonal settings is another key to establishing psychological safety, and this involves learning more about our team’s personal styles and accommodating those styles in the way we work.
For example, consider a regular team meeting at a global organization with employees across the world. This meeting involves having people call in from several different time zones. When it’s the middle of the day in the US, it’s often late at night for Europe. If someone in the US schedules a meeting at a time that’s convenient for them, they may be inconveniencing their European colleagues.
In cases like these, people might not feel comfortable speaking up and sharing with the group what accommodations they need. To help with this, you can create team norms that are inclusive and accommodating of everyone’s needs, without making those people feel singled out or uncomfortable. For example, you might decide that no meetings can be scheduled after 5pm for all participants or reserve a block of time when it’s acceptable to schedule meetings with people from a specific time zone.
By creating a norm about when it’s acceptable to schedule meetings, it becomes simply a thing people do.
Design norms by thinking about all the possible needs the people you work with might have, and be inclusive of those. Don’t force people to come to you with these needs, but create the space and safety for them to do so if needed.
You can also create norms for your team around working styles and preferences. Managers can start by having a conversation on an individual basis with their teammates. Ask them how they like to work — do they like to have blocks of uninterrupted time for deep focus? Do they prefer to have meetings scheduled in the morning or afternoon? Do they have regularly scheduled time when they’ll be away from their desk and unavailable?
Another great way to learn more about the individual preferences of people on your team is through personality assessments like MBTI, DiSC, StrengthsFinder, and True Colors. These tools can help you and your employees by giving a shared understanding and shared vocabulary for how to talk about your working styles and communication preferences.
Finally, it’s a good idea to work with your team as a group to establish working norms for how you will engage with each other in a way that is inclusive of everyone and makes everyone feel psychologically safe. This might include sharing an agenda before every meeting to give everyone an opportunity to reflect ahead of time if needed, or celebration norms that accommodate a team member’s food allergies or religious preferences around alcohol consumption.
Work with your team to brainstorm these norms. Everyone should have input into the norms. Afterward, let people know that if there’s anything missing, they can come to you.
Once you’re done brainstorming together, document the norms you came up with and share them back with your team. Hold yourselves accountable to make sure you’re following your norms. Link them to the top of agendas, or share them as a slide at the start of every team meeting. Eventually, the norms will just become a part of how you do things.
As I described earlier, belonging means that the people on your team are welcomed and able to be their authentic selves at work. Belonging happens when there is radical inclusion, when people feel psychological safety and inclusion to the degree that their differences are not just respected and accommodated, but celebrated. This leads to high degrees of employee trust and engagement in their organization, which directly impacts organizational success.
I truly believe that as a manager, the most fulfilling thing you can do is make the effort to foster inclusion and belonging on your team. It’s hard work, but the payoff is so worth it.
Empower your team. Lead the industry.
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