Inclusive Leadership Starts with Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety

UPDATED: March 29, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 16, 2022
Inclusive Leadership Starts with Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety

Whether you’ve been leading a remote workforce for decades, recently ventured into this space, are dabbling with hybrid models or are fully returning your staff to in-house status, one thing is certain: The concept of the “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.

Plus, we all have a front row seat to the Great Resignation as the country and the job market have 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.

Inclusion and belonging have taken on a heightened level of importance within the workplace. Once buzzwords 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. 

Leaders must 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 subsequent actions?
  • Did the manager have regular conversations with the employee on career goals?
  • Did the organization make inclusion and belonging visible priorities and part of their 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 often share with other diversity and inclusion executive leaders, the role of psychological safety and trust continues to be the solution against early departures. Timothy Clark, Ph.D. 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. Executive leaders, managers and supervisors must rethink what workplace inclusion and trust look like. It means we sometimes have vulnerable 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 understanding and alignment between employee and employer. 

Women in the workplace are especially affected when considering psychological safety at work. In September 2021, thousands of women left the workforce completely according to Business Insider. Men 20 years and older who entered or re-entered the workforce in September 2021 fell to around 189,000, compared with women 20 years and older who left the workforce in the same month was estimated to be around 309,000. A culture of psychological safety and trust could have created opportunities for female talent to speak up and for organizations to create more equitable experiences in the workplace to prevent the loss of such valuable individuals. The September 2021 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that we have more jobs open than talent in the workforce—and that this will only get worse. 

Beyond the Great Resignation, we now have the Great Migration of employees, as well as the Great Confrontation happening in corporations all over the world. Leaders are coming face-to-face with the lack of cultural competence, awareness and humility that exist in our corporate settings. Cultural awareness issues were regularly dismissed, downplayed or turned a blind eye to. 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 and inclusion executive leaders to join their senior leadership teams in order to lead safety and trust culture at work. We saw this same heightened sense of awareness after the death of George Floyd, the burnout from the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Great Resignation. 

People don’t quit companies; they quit bosses. When talent quits a boss, it’s often because somewhere along the journey, that talent lost their trust in the boss’s ability to keep the best interests of the employee in mind. 

“Do you have me, 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.” 

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 toward… together. 

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Art Benjamin
Arthur Benjamin is an experienced Talent Acquisition, Diversity and Inclusion leader with 19 years of demonstrated history in strategic thought, leadership and planning around the complexities of talent engagement, culture, diversity, and inclusion. Skilled in Technical and Corporate Recruiting, Screening, Strategic HR Leadership, Management, and Diversity & Inclusion strategy. Mr. Benjamin holds a BS in Social Psychology and  a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership.