Creating a safe and inclusive work environment is vital for fundamental employee well-being and for creating a workplace where everyone is set up to do their best work for the business. One key aspect of this is psychological safety – the belief that one can speak up, ask questions, and suggest new ideas without fear of negative consequences.
Whether or not you are able to create an atmosphere of psychological safety within your organization has huge implications for the way your employees collaborate and express themselves in the workplace. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to engage in open communication, take risks, and contribute to a positive organizational culture. According to a study conducted by the Ecsell Institute, psychological safety in the office leads to more effective communication, better employee retention, and increased team performance. Psychological safety also directly impacts the way employees feel about their work and their overall satisfaction: Employees who feel psychologically safe report 76% more engagement, 50% more productivity, 75% less stress, and 30% more life satisfaction.
As a people leader, I am constantly thinking about how I can create a more inclusive environment within my own organization – but I know all too well how challenging and complex that can be in practice.
That’s why I sought out my friend DDS Dobson-Smith, CPO at Just Global Inc. as well as an executive coach and a licensed clinician who truly embodies the idea of human-forward leadership. DDS has spent the bulk of their career working to better understand and create psychological safety within organizations, through their coaching practice, and with the individuals they work with. I spoke with DDS to get their perspective on how we should be defining psychological safety in the workplace and how today’s people leaders should be thinking about creating inclusive cultures.
You have such a varied background as a CPO – can you give us the highlights of your career journey so far and some of the experiences that have had the greatest impact on you in your current role as a people leader?
It’s hard to say what has had the greatest impact on me! I can say that nothing about my path to CPO has been traditional, but everything I’ve experienced has left a mark on the kind of leader I am today.
One of the most significant lessons came early, in my days as a college lecturer at the young age of 23. I was teaching a group of mature students who had so much more life experience under their belts than I did – and I learned firsthand the value of humility and respect for the lived experiences of others, something that has served me in every single role I’ve held since.
When I moved on from teaching I still wanted to stay as close to the fundamentals of education and working with others as possible, so I moved into a manager role in personnel management. That role taught me so much about the realities of managing – most importantly, that your job is not to manage your employees at all but to create the conditions for them to be successful.
In many of the roles since, I’ve picked up core understandings that have shaped my approach as a people leader. In my work with Eurostar, I realized the importance of aligning the desired customer experience with the employee experience, while also ensuring that external and internal communication about the company is aligned. At Sony Music Entertainment, I found out that creativity can be maximized by allowing others the chance to speak up before the most senior person does. My experiences at Essence emphasized the difference between culture and climate, with the latter affecting how people act and interact with each other, regardless of the intentions set out in the culture statement.
While it falls outside traditional HR roles, some of my most valuable lessons as a leader have come from my work as a licensed mental health clinician. In this work, I was taught to assume positive intent and lead with empathy, recognizing that every person’s actions follow a logical explanation.
At the end of the day, I’ve had terrible jobs and amazing jobs – and all of it is grist for the mill!
While creating cultures of psychological safety is one of the more complex challenges people leaders face today, I’d like to start simple here: What does psychological safety mean to you in general? What does it look like in the workplace?
To me, psychological safety is really about the embodied experience that we can have as an individual when we know it won’t cost us anything to simply be ourselves.
In the workplace, that means we can go about our work without the need to code-switch or hide aspects of our identity. This means not having to worry about how we should present ourselves as a Black or Brown person, or as a queer person. It also means not having to question whether it is appropriate to discuss personal topics such as children, sobriety, mental health, or neuro-divergence.
Psychological safety plays a crucial role in creating an environment where individuals feel respected and have the freedom to be themselves. It is not something that needs to be earned, but is a birthright – I like to say, for everyone who is human and harmless.
However, psychological safety alone is not always enough. Sometimes, intentional bravery is required to build truly inclusive cultures. Intentional bravery stems from courage and vulnerability and allows us to face our fears and take action. This intentional bravery can only be achieved when an individual feels a sense of belonging.
When psychological safety is combined with intentional bravery, it creates a space for open communication and courageous conversations. It becomes a relational space where everyone – whether partners, friends, or coworkers – can feel safe enough to take risks with themselves and each other.
I like to say that in many ways, the world of work – without psychological safety – can feel a lot like the world of high school. We’re trying to fit in with our bosses, our colleagues, with the direction of organizational discourse. The entire time we’re doing that, we’re expending energy to suppress parts of ourselves. If we don’t have to do that – just think of the energy that gets released for innovation, creativity, teamwork, management, and productivity.
As HR professionals, there is another layer to this for me, as we often serve a caretaker role in the context of the workplace – and that can be draining. Yet we can be viewed primarily as disciplinarians or administrators by our colleagues. I’m curious, how have you experienced psychological safety in the course of your own work? How do you see it fitting into the role of a People leader and what we have to bring to the table every day?
I vividly remember a particular incident in my career when the CEO I reported to asked me to “tone it down” in a meeting. When I asked him what exactly he meant, he responded with: “Be less gay.” In response, I challenged him by saying that I would tone it down if he could be less straight. Unsurprisingly this caught him off guard.
I strongly believe that I should have the autonomy to manage myself and define my own boundaries – and that only becomes more critical when you’re in a people management role. I’ve also noticed that I am more confident in advocating for myself when my superiors show vulnerability to me. I think it is crucial in the workplace for employees to see vulnerability mirrored by those they work for and alongside in order to truly feel it themselves.
As a people leader, I also strongly believe in the principle of inclusion. This means welcoming and accepting those who may not hold the same beliefs or viewpoints as me. I am aware that there are people who do not agree with things like single motherhood, or who may hold discriminatory views against trans, queer, Brown, and Black individuals. However, in order for conversations to progress, it is important for us to invite each other into these discussions rather than excluding others. We need to recognize the points where our humanity overlaps and acknowledge the areas where our differences are acceptable. When these differences start to clash with company policies or codes of ethics, that’s where we as people leaders need to step in and find solutions.
At the end of the day, inclusion truly means inclusion. We must strive to create an environment where everyone feels respected and included – and while that does fall partially under the responsibilities of people leaders, we deserve to feel supported in our own workplaces as well.
While the importance of psychological safety in the workplace is better understood now than ever before, I think it’s still something a lot of organizations (and leaders) struggle to create within their company cultures. What do you think the key considerations are for leaders looking to address this?
An important starting point from my perspective is for leaders to recognize that saying “this is a safe space” does not automatically create a safe space. We can only demonstrate through our behavior and vulnerability that spaces are actually safe.
We must allow the demonstration to be the teacher. Ultimately, leaders need to focus on developing self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-development in order to create psychological safety for their organizations and teams:
- Self-awareness enables you to understand your own positionality the ways in which your identity carries privilege and the aspects of your identity that might be subject to oppression or marginalization. It also lets you understand the positionality of others and how your own identity might impact them.
- Self-acceptance enables you to know that while you cannot do anything about your privilege, you can do something with it. It enables you to engage in critical self-reflection.
- Self-development is the process of education that a leader can undertake to understand their impact on others, and to discover more about what it is like to live life in a body and background that is different from their own.
Are there any common misconceptions people have about psychological safety and belonging?
I think the most significant misconception that I come across is the idea that claiming a space to be safe automatically puts people at ease.
This is simply impossible, especially when you consider that often, the person claiming that a space is safe is the one in a position of power – whether that power is from an identity position or a position in an organizational hierarchy.
In the course of your work, you’ve connected with so many individuals and employees who have worked through challenges both within workplaces and outside of them. What is one thing you would encourage leaders to keep in mind to ensure they are approaching their people in the most empathetic, human-forward way?
Oftentimes we as leaders can fall into the Rescuer Trap: The idea that it is our job to fix, solve, and amend issues on behalf of other people. Instead, often the most empathetic thing to do is simply to listen.
Of course, there are times when the leader does need to take accountability to fix, resolve, or amend issues. But it’s important to keep in mind that in doing that, at some level, you may be taking away some agency from the individual.
Empathy is the process of walking in another person’s shoes such that you will be able to get a feel for what life might be like for them. It is not the process of taking things off their plate.
I always think of this Carl Rogers quote: “[When] someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good! When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and go on. It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”
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