Diversity & Inclusion

How Leadership’s Understanding of “Psychological Safety” is More Important than Ever

Whether you’ve been leading a remote workforce for decades, recently ventured into this space, are dabbling with hybrid models or fully returning your staff to in-house status, one thing is certain: The concept of “workplace” has changed forever. The pandemic effectively recast it. And the hard, sacred work of nurturing company culture has gotten even more dynamic in the process.

psychological safety

Plus, we all have a front row seat to “The Great Resignation” as the country and the job market has opened back up and the perception of boundless options prevails (all while making this workplace and cultural undertaking even more fraught for leadership). The talented and the hopeful are not wrong – There is an opportunity boom as we emerge from this period, but what remains is more important than ever: the need to get a few things right, and these all play into the primal need of feeling psychologically safe. Offer or no offer, no one’s coming back to your office, live, virtual or otherwise, if they don’t feel safe and included within the culture.

Therefore, inclusion and belonging have taken on a heightened level of importance within the workplace. Once buzzwords in the workplace, and often used only for PR purposes, these traits are now business imperatives. Talent is more intentional now than ever about interviewing the company they will lend their skills to, rather than simply being interviewed by a potential employer. Value and career alignment, community, allyship and trust are dominating interview conversations more and more.

This war on talent is opening the eyes of global companies and leaders to rethink their strategy for attracting and retaining the world’s top talent. When employees leave an organization to take on other opportunities or resign without another offer in hand, there may be a true disconnect in value, career alignment or trust. Here are some immediate questions to consider:

  • Did the employee speak up about concerns prior to resigning? If no, why not? If yes, were there follow-up conversations and realignment on actions?
  • Did the manager have regular conversations with the employee on career goals and timing?
  • Did the organization make inclusion and belonging visible priorities and central business strategy?
  • How safe do your employees feel to share their frustrations or misalignments? On a scale of 1 to 10 (1= not safe at all, 10=extremely safe).
  • How inclusive is your leadership?

As I share often with other Diversity & Inclusion executive leaders, the role of psychological safety and trust continues to be the solution for regrettable attrition. Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, defines psychological safety as “an environment of rewarded vulnerability”. If we take this definition and use it to assess our current culture in many organizations we see the missing ingredient. It is imperative that executive leaders, managers, and supervisors all rethink what workplace inclusion and trust look like. It means we sometimes have the uncomfortable conversations with staff, and ask questions like,“What are you hoping to get from your time in this role?” or “How do you see this opportunity playing into your overall career goals?” These basic questions create opportunities for alignment and realignment throughout their time in the organization.

This war has had an even more difficult impact on women in the workplace. In September alone, hundreds of thousands of women left the workforce completely according to Business Insider. While men, ages 20 and over, who entered or re-entered the workforce in September 2021 statistically fell around 189,000 it is an eye opener that the number of women, age 20 and over, was estimated around 309,000 who left the workforce that same month. A culture of psychological safety and trust could have created opportunities for female talent to speak up and organizations to create more equitable experiences in the workplace so we weren’t losing such valuable individuals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics report tells us that we have more jobs open than talent in the workforce and this will only get worse.

Beyond “The Great Resignation”, we now have “The Great Migration” of employees and   “The Great Confrontation” happening in corporations all over the world, too. Leaders are coming face-to-face with the lack of cultural competence, cultural awareness, and cultural humility that exist in our corporate settings. With possible cultural and leadership blindspots that were regularly dismissed, down-played, or turned a blind-eye to in place of productivity numbers, we find ourselves at war for top talent again.. How do you reason through 30% or higher attrition rates? This Great Confrontation has once again brought corporate leaders to their knees in search of strategic, well-developed Diversity & Inclusion executive leaders to join their senior leadership teams to lead safety and trust culture work. We saw this same heightened sense of awareness after the George Floyd death, the burnout from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, and now The Great Resignation of 2021.

We hear the statement all the time that people don’t quit companies, they quit bosses. And often when talent quits a boss, it is because somewhere along the journey, that talent lost trust in the boss’s ability to place the employee’s interest in mind.

“Do you have me and my career and my ability to excel in this role, in mind, when you’re leading? If you don’t, then I’ll go somewhere where I am celebrated and recognized for my value add.”

So, take a moment. Step back. Reflect and ask yourself those questions.

Psychological safety is not simply something to “achieve” or a box to check. It’s something to embody. And it takes continuous work and improvement.

It’s also not something that any one person can achieve alone for an organization. It’s on each of us – from CEOs and tenured leaders to new hires experiencing their first day – to consistently work towards… Together.

With that, I encourage you to consider #rethinking psychological safety in corporate culture.