The Road to an Equitable Recovery is Paved with Psychological Safety

The Road to an Equitable Recovery is Paved with Psychological Safety

April 22, 2020
The Feminuity Team

Much of the conversation surrounding the changes organizations are currently experiencing assumes that when things begin to “clear,” operations will revert to the way they were, back to “business as usual.” But we need to ask ourselves if this is something to aspire to. COVID-19 has magnified systems of oppression and exploitation, systems that were already unsustainable and fractured.  We can attempt to ‘repair’ a previously fractured and now utterly broken system, or we can get to work to build something new. We have the option and opportunity now to refuse to go back to “business as usual” and instead reevaluate inequitable practices and redesign equitable ones. In other words, we have the opportunity to get started designing an equitable recovery. We don’t need to wait for the proverbial dust to settle.


Equitable Recovery


The decisions and actions made by organizations now, and in the aftermath of the crisis, can change the status quo.


More than ever, we need diverse teams’ value to bring perspectives, histories, and insights collaboratively to the table. For each of us, recovering from the crisis will mean different things on a personal level. In the same light, we all bring different experiences and perspectives on the impact of the crisis on our organizations, products, and offerings. Therefore, our responses need to be inclusive of perspectives from people in numerous roles and identities.


But bringing a diversity of backgrounds together is not enough, of course. For an equitable recovery to occur, we need better teams that are not only more inclusive and equitable but places where people actually feel psychologically safe. 

For an equitable recovery to occur, we need better teams that are not only more inclusive and equitable but places where people actually feel psychologically safe. 


Psychological Safety


Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in her book The Fearless Organization. Psychological Safety is “a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions or ideas.” Psychological safety is an important element of inclusion. When people feel psychologically safe, they know that they have a right to ask hard questions about their work: Is this the right decision? Are we collecting the right data? Do we know the impact this might have on others?  


When people feel psychologically safe, they know that they have a right to ask hard questions about their work.


They also feel comfortable sharing their mistakes or failures. As Edmondson’s research revealed, teams that feel psychologically safe reported making more mistakes. This does not mean that teams that feel psychologically safe make more mistakes or have more failures than other teams. However, it means that they can collect more accurate data and learn together as a group.  Similar to when organizations create space for real dialogue about harassment and develop a clear reporting process, such as an anonymous platform like All Voices, reporting numbers will likely increase. This is *usually* a good sign.


Some of our clients have felt discouraged to see harassment reporting numbers increase after all of their efforts. Still, as we remind them, this is rarely a signal that experiences of harassment have escalated, and instead, it is a signal that people may feel more inclined and safer to report.  Instead of keeping their disclosure private or leaving the organization, they report it. Similarly, rather than cover up a mistake or hide a failure, team members feel psychologically safe to report more.   

So, what would it look like if teams had a climate of openness that made it easier to report and discuss errors? 


So, what would it look like if teams had a climate of openness that made it easier to report and discuss errors? 


When people feel psychologically safe, it also increases their ability to innovate effectively. When innovation is necessary, having psychological safety pushes us to create products and services that are open to critique, making them more effective.  For example, you can have a diversity of people during ideation for a new product. Still, if people do not feel safe or comfortable bringing up any gaps or potential inequities, you may have to adjust and pivot your product offering after some harm has already been done. Therefore, you could have a diverse team but build a product that doesn’t work for many people. What’s the point of building diverse teams if they can’t step into their full potential?


Building psychological safety may take more time to foster and develop, but it is an ethical and organizational investment worth taking.  Protecting the long-term is less about making perfect choices today and more about the ability to learn and adapt in the weeks and months ahead.   


Three Steps for Building Psychological Safety


Building psychological safety may be more critical now than ever before. With virtual spaces and physical distance creating more barriers, we must work in other ways to foster inclusion and reduce barriers to connection. Edmondson has three steps to promote psychological safety.


1. Set the stage. 


Create a shared understanding of the nature of the work you do and why everyone’s input matters. For example, in our team, as a small business, we discuss what's at stake with our work, and we also discuss how difficult it may be for us to continue to scale as an organization in a post-pandemic world.


In virtual meetings, you can set the stage by setting clear goals and expectations for team meetings. Why are you meeting? Is the space for venting, action planning, or something else?  On our team, we try to set expectations before the meeting, so we are aligned and make the most of the time. You can also try a working agreement. This can include confidentiality, the right to pass, if you should be speaking from an “I” perspective, etc. 

2. Proactively invite input. 


Asking is the simplest and best way to get people to offer their ideas. Call people in by asking questions such as “what do you see in this situation?” or “what is your biggest takeaway from this experience?” or “where should we go from here?”.


You can also set aside time for people to raise challenges and concerns. Our team has virtual weekly 1:1s. You could also have a 10-minute check-in at the beginning of a team meeting. Communicate that answering these questions are optional and check in with team members on their preferred method of communication.

3. Respond appreciatively. 


How you respond to input or feedback is often just as important as asking for it. You can try things like, “Thanks for that clear line of sight” or “What can we do to help you out?” Responding appreciatively does not mean that you’re aligned with everything said; it means that you recognize the courage it takes to come forward or ask a question when you’re unsure about something.


In the virtual space, acknowledging contributions can sometimes be more difficult. Try creating methods for yourself and other team members to give each other “shout-outs,” such as on a Slack channel or a moderated message board. 


We don’t know what comes next, but we can use this time to imagine and design something different.


We don’t know what comes next, but we can use this time to imagine and design something different. We can take the lead of those who have been excluded. We can listen deeply to those most impacted. We can choose to make decisions based on not just our individual needs but on the collective good. The need to be creative and innovative, connect with employees on a personal level, and help maintain colleagues’ health and safety have become much more critical. Using diversity, equity, and inclusion principles, we can do the next right thing and then keep doing that until our world looks a bit different. 

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