How to Ensure ‘Psychological Safety’ Around Race and Gender in the Workplace

How to Ensure ‘Psychological Safety’ Around Race and Gender in the Workplace

By Shahla Khan

Google, Inc. is this century’s most profitable business organization (their asset is data, which is worth more than gold today), but also the pinnacle of welcoming and transparent work practices that makes it the dream employer for millennials and younger generations. One of the most important aspects of Google’s research on high-performing teams is the element of ‘psychological safety.’ The concept suggests that team members must be able to express their ideas, criticisms, and creative inputs without fear of repercussions or shaming.


Among many articles published in business blogs and magazines about psychological safety, a Harvard Business Review piece is one of the most comprehensive; it details six different ways managers can create a safety net in the workplace. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, also developed a scale by which psychological safety can be measured. 


However, what’s disturbing is the missing context on race and gender in the broader discussion about psychological safety. People that belong to racial or gender minorities often feel psychologically unsafe when it comes to things like wearing their hair naturally to work, let alone sharing an unpopular opinion. This is one of the main reasons why systemic racism still exists and marketing campaigns continue to produce racist ads like the Heineken’s ‘Sometimes, lighter is better’ beer ad.


Though Greg Barnett, Vice President of People Science at psychology data team PerceptionPredict, also discusses ways to create psychological safety at work, there are passing indirect cues like ‘inclusivity’ or ‘self-censorship’ that fail to address the reality of how unsafe minorities feel in the workplace. James L. Gibson, Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government at Washington University in St. Louis, notes with concern that Americans are self-censoring at record rates but this can actually be viewed as a positive. Gibson also claimed that dominant group members (such as white heterosexual men) prefer silence for fear of misspeaking about race and gender. A recent article published by Sarah Todd, Senior Reporter at Quartz, reveals the truth and supports this thought: 


Researchers from the nonprofit think tank asked white, straight, cisgender men with white-collar jobs in the US about their views on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. Only 10% of the respondents thought DEI wasn’t important at all; the most common reason those men gave for not being involved with such efforts was that they ‘don’t benefit me.’


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Social theorists have arrived at this conclusion several times, adding that white, cisgender men in white-collar jobs view diversity & inclusion as “extra curricular.” They’ve also mentioned that they are too busy, their focus is on their primary work responsibilities, and they want to accomplish things that benefit them directly. This is the textbook response of every privileged person in every system based on unequal power. Unfortunately, research already exists that suggests that a hard sell on diversity actually backfired and has the potential to entrench bias rather than mitigate it. In such an environment, is there the slightest chance that the people in the non-dominant groups dare display their honest ideas in the workplace?


There is a common misconception that the fear of public shaming is so high that racism and sexism are things of the past, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Because being publicly criticized for discriminatory practices or offensive jokes is unpleasant for dominant groups, they will often shift the narrative to make it seem like  left-leaning, politically correct culture is like an attack on their freedom of speech. It is not rare to hear a white heterosexual man complaining that he can’t speak his mind anymore, as Gibson said. But for comfort and safety to feel attainable for all people, people with social capital and privilege need to learn how to accommodate minorities. The current climate is a stalemate between the privileged that are too occupied to make any real change in their attitudes and the minorities protesting for diversity and inclusion agendas that align with their rights. Neither party can prioritize psychological safety in this case.  


Managers need to make psychological safety a top-down approach towards team building and cooperation. As long as  privileged individuals are self-indulgent and passive about diversity issues, matters will only worsen. Particularly considering since President Trump has recently defunded federal diversity training, the burden of providing training and support networks has fallen to the heads of companies and organizations. These trainings are the key element that allow diverse people to perform ‘safely’ and companies to reap the benefits of diversity.


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