… yet psychological safety is one of the least attended to aspects of team leadership.

The promise of diversity in teams is an innovation dividend. Diversity introduces different information, it is processed and elaborated in new ways, there is more discussion and integration of ideas. This results in novel solutions, increased error detection, and better group problem solving.

The dilemma is that it is more comfortable to work with people who are most like us. Working with people most like us reinforces our social identity, and our social identity is fundamental to our sense of belonging and our self-esteem, all of which are in turn important to our psychological well-being.

Paying attention to psychological safety prevents conflict between groups

When diverse people join homogeneous groups, social identity is disrupted. Subgroups emerge. Subgroups can interfere with the sharing of information. They may create tension and conflict and so they prevent the ability to tap into the resources that all group members bring. Paying attention to psychological safety is particularly important in diverse teams. Otherwise, you are expecting people from the non-dominant group to jump in without a safety net.

A report from Catalyst “The Secret to Inclusion in Australian Workplaces” has just been released. I am pleased to see that primary importance is given to the leader’s role in creating psychological safety. The Catalyst report presents an EACH model of inclusion that focuses on four important leadership behaviours:

  • Empowerment to succeed,
  • Accountability for good work,
  • Courage to uphold principles, and
  • Humility to admit and learn from mistakes.

Where there are social power differentials, identity threat means that non-dominant group members may not contribute at their maximum. Whether or not we get to see the full talents and capabilities of women, or people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds in groups depends greatly on their perceptions of how safe it is to be in the team.

In diverse teams, it is assumed that work norms and styles are shared but in reality they favour the dominant group. Appealing to what is “common” or “shared” diminishes the contributions of people from diverse backgrounds. It’s often a well-intentioned attempt to create comfort. Yet while emphasizing what everyone has in common can be an attempt to make everyone feel safer, for minority members it generally backfires.

Typical responses are resistance, withdrawal or assimilation, all of which diminish performance. And none of which may be noticed by members of the dominant group.

Identity safety is assured where women and other under-represented groups believe that their specific group identity is welcome in the group: this allows the creation of trust and comfort amongst group members.

It is the team’s leader’s role to create psychological safety

It is the team leader’s role to pay attention to the safety of team members and to create the conditions that minimize identity threat, providing security. This must be done actively, not assumed. A set of shared and agreed ground rules that is actively promoted, discussed and used for accountability, goes a long way.

Coupled with this is the expression of “diversity perspective”.  This is the explicit acknowledgement that diversity makes a positive contribution, that individuals’ core identities shape life experience and have relevance for work. A diversity perspective welcomes diversity, seeing it as a sustaining factor that leads to the surfacing of new ideas. The leader names and relies on diversity in the team to contribute to team functioning and performance, and advocates its importance to the team’s work.

The greater the psychological safety created in the team, the more likely diverse members are to feel identity safety and to feel congruent“I am seen by other group members in the same way that I see myself. And I can freely express the things that I cherish about myself, that I hold central to who I am”. The greater the personal congruence, the greater the personal disclosure, the greater the team effectiveness.

A simple reflection –

  • Is identity threat a possibility in your team?
  • How do you manage team safety?
  • Are pro-diversity beliefs articulated in your group?
  • What might you do/encourage others to do to increase safety?

To read more about psychological safety and teams, check out Amy C. Edmondson’s work.