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How Can We Foster Psychologically Safe Workplaces?

by Dr. Zakiya Mabery

Many organizations want to foster a sense of psychological safety in the workplace – one that encourages individuals to speak their minds without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career advancement. However, to be able to speak without fear, it is essential trust is established first. Without trust, individuals do not feel safe. Without safety, teams can’t function efficiently, which can negatively impact morale as well as the bottom-line.

Psychological safety is about curating a healthier organizational culture where each individual on your team – including your colleagues, grantees, and community stakeholders – feel a greater sense of trust and belonging. It is both a process and a destination.

I recently had an experience with a small business in which I experienced multiple unaddressed microagressions and endured verbal abuse. I was given the title “Director of DEIA” with no benefits and a subpar salary compared to local and industry standards, despite the business being awarded multi-million-dollar contracts using my resume for the proposals. I was the only person of color hired by them to develop and facilitate diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) content for clients. After I was hired, the CEO told me my hiring was because I was Black and the business believed the clients would receive the information better coming from me. While engaging with human resources, they told me I was the only person that had ever requested reasonable accommodations for my disabilities and denied providing the accommodations. And once, during a meeting, a program manager for one of the clients responded with a giggle when I tried to ask if she would give cultural examples and incorporate dimensions of diversity in the training she wanted to facilitate on generational differences. Yes, she literally giggled. When you do not incorporate important concepts on diversity in learning, you are watering down the content to make it palatable to those who already have and hoard privilege and power.

I did not have a seat or voice at the table during my short tenure, and I was excluded from many client meetings unless I was needed to “perform” rather than facilitate. For these reasons and more, I did not feel safe or appreciated in that environment. Unfortunately, this exacerbated multiple health conditions. I tell this example of my lived experience because there are many individuals who similarly encounter toxic work cultures that could potentially chip away at one’s self concept and contribute to other mental health conditions and physical health challenges.

Workplace-induced trauma can stem from numerous causes, including (but not limited to) experiences of racism, bullying, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and xenophobia. It’s not a new concept, but research over the past two decades has highlighted that it is a rising concern, and some individuals have come to refer to it as “workplace PTSD.”
Let’s tackle barriers head on and stop perpetuating microaggressions and trauma. To arrive at “psychological safety” here are seven tips for foundation and organization leaders to consider:

  • Educate your C-suite leaders and middle managers by offering trainings and collaborative learning opportunities, and by encouraging courageous conversations.
  • Actively listen with humility to improve understanding of the current state of the organizational culture.
  • Take action. Form a strategic plan to make a psychologically safe workplace by addressing what you have heard from individuals at every level of the organization.
  • Recognize good work and offer to support when work quality may need improvement. Offer positive reinforcement through regular feedback. Provide opportunities for stretch assignments, advancements, and performance bonuses.
  • Call out expressions of bias and discrimination, and consciously support staff to do better. Hold everyone accountable for their words and actions.
  • Empower two-way communication between leaders and all employees.
  • Openly communicate goals and measure progress.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility must be ingrained into workplace policies and strategies. While many organizations are proactively working toward this, others are still missing the mark. DEIA should be more than transactional! It’s time for a transformational approach.

True allyship means we need to acknowledge the hardships that marginalized individuals go through on a daily basis. We must dismantle biased systems and amplify the voices of underrepresented groups.

When we model and cultivate psychological safety, we enable greater transparency, improved collaboration, and impactful outcomes. When psychological safety is present in workplaces, individuals can feel safe being vulnerable, using their voice, taking risks, making mistakes, handling conflict, and being their authentic selves.

Zakiya Mabery, Ph.D, is an author, international speaker, independent consultant who helps businesses, colleges, universities, and communities design programs that address mental health, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in addition to social justice issues. Her expert opinion is frequently sought after by the media, federal government, the United States military, and professional organizations. Dr. Mabery is well-known for initiative programs which address issues of mental health, overcoming adversity, sexual assault, bias, inclusive leadership, intersectionality and bystander intervention.