Psychological safety, power and inclusivity

My drive, my mission is to increase creativity, potential in people. In myself but even more in others. There is so much that can be done to increase creative potential by learning new skills. But the other side of this is to eliminate limiting factors and that is equally important, maybe even more. Limiting factors can be inside people or in the context. One part of the context that has caught my attention lately because it is such a big limiting factor is psychological safety. I have written about my personal experiences with psychological safety recently:

Awareness around psychological safety is an important first step towards lifting this limiting factor. Lack of psychological safety is not only demotivating, painful and depressing but it also has its impact on the business. It’s not just a health and well-being problem but also a business problem.

Assess the level of psychological safety

I found these great questions to assess whether there is a problem with psychological safety in your organization from Timothy Clark in this article on Forbes:

Have you felt excluded in a social setting?
Have you been afraid to ask a question?
Have you remained silent when you knew the answer to a problem?
Have you had someone else steal credit for something you did?
Have you given a suggestion that was ignored?
Have you been rudely interrupted in a meeting?
Have you felt that you were the target of a negative stereotype?
Have you faced retaliation for challenging the status quo?
Have you had a boss who asked for feedback but didn’t really want it?
Have you been publicly shamed or made fun of?
Have you been punished for making an honest mistake?
Have you been made to feel inferior?

These things happen. Humans interact with humans. We all have our shit that we carry with us that makes us exclude people sometimes, that makes us make other people feel inferior. It’s the ego at work. We all have one. But I believe we can reduce the power of the ego. One of those steps on the way is awareness, seeing what happens and seeing what the effects are. There are levels of psychological safety, and the level is measured by the frequency at which the above breaches of psychological safety occur. Timothy Clark identified 4 levels:

  1. You feel included.
  2. You feel safe to learn.
  3. You feel safe to contribute.
  4. You feel safe to challenge the status quo.

All this without the fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished. There is a clear link between psychological safety and power.

Power and safety

Any form of punishment, whether it be embarrassment, exclusion, ignoring, silent treatment, gossip, negative stereotyping, credit stealing, anything has to do with power. Does someone have the power to exclude you? Does someone have the power to punish you? When it comes to power, there are two situations: a single person or a group.

Authority of a single person

A single person can have the power to punish you for speaking up, challenging, being different. A person with some form of authority can punish you. If a person has no authority, they cannot punish you and therefor cannot create an unsafe psychological space. The easiest example of authority is the boss. In our corporate culture, a boss can punish. So lots of articles about psychological safety are about how leaders can create a psychological safe space. But also other people can have the authority to punish you. If you value a person’s opinion and you want that person to like you, you give that person the power to punish you. You feel unsafe to challenge a person or be yourself if you give that person that power, that authority. If you do not care what that person thinks about you, the can be no unsafe psychological situation and you can just be yourself. One thing to remember about any form of authority is that authority is given. People only have authority if you give them authority. That goes for all authority. Some forms of authority are easier to take back than others but all authority is given and can be revoked.

So if you have been given authority, it is crucial that you create psychological safety. This is especially evident in corporate environments where we need creative potential to be high like in innovation projects. One of the reasons leadership is a limiting factor in innovation is because of psychological safety.

Group dynamics

Another power dynamic in organizations and life in general is the authority of the group. We all carry the genetic burden of the need to be part of a group. There is this narrative that when we were cavemen, we needed to be part of the group to survive and this need is somehow coded into our DNA or something. I don’t think that is still relevant today or that this narrative is even true. Fact is that people want to be part of a group for several reasons. One of them being safety. To go against the opinion of a group is hard. Groups have a tendency to agree on a set of ideas and values and defend those ideas because they are the glue that keeps the group together, that creates the identity of the group. Psychological safety in groups is a big problem. The punishment for being different in a group that is bound together by their sameness, is exclusion. This is a standard part of group dynamics. The group is largely defined by what is not in the group. The first level of psychological safety is feeling included. The only way to be included in a lot of groups is to agree. To be different and still be a part of a group is a challenge, but there are ways:

So the group has the power to punish with one of the harshest and most fundamental punishments: exclusion. Exclusion means you are not liked, not loved. If you are not included, the other levels of psychological safety are not attainable: learn, contribute, challenge. Inclusion is the foundation of all psychological safety. The foundation of the power of the group is the power of numbers, the power of majority. There is a common misconception that if a dozen people agree on something and one person has a different view, the dozen people are right. Minorities can also be right but they do not have the power of numbers so they have to resort to other strategies. They have to break through the lack of psychological safety by being brave enough to resist and be true to themselves. They have to face the punishment that is part of this. They have to continue despite the punishments that will be laid upon them. If there is psychological safety, we do not need courage. That is why most people will do anything to stay in a group. In a group, if you agree with the group, you are safe and don’t need courage. There is no courage required to agree with a majority. There is no need to think for yourself. There is no need to stand up. There is no need to stick your neck out. There is no need to learn to endure punishments.

Holding space

If we want to get to level four of psychological safety: challenging, we need to secure the foundation: inclusivity. If you want creativity, innovation, you need to find a way to get to this highest level of psychological safety. That is the business part. It pays to create the highest possible level of psychological safety if your business needs creativity and innovation. But there is also the human part. In any human interaction we need psychological safety to flourish. To hold space for others to be themselves is the highest form of love.

Inclusive leadership

Inclusion, inclusive leadership is the first step on the ladder towards full psychological safety. That is why inclusive leadership is so important today. But remember leadership is not something done by the boss, leadership, inclusive leadership is everyone’s responsibility. In this article in the Harvard Business Review about inclusive leadership, Juliet Bourke and Andrea Titus talk about what it takes to be an inclusive leader:

  1. Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  2. Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.
  3. Awareness of bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots as well as flaws in the system and work hard to ensure meritocracy.
  4. Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.
  5. Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  6. Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.

These are complex skills. Lots of them are about seeing: seeing bias in systems, seeing other people in other cultures. Others are about doing: articulation and facilitation of co-creation. But this is the foundation of psychological safety, of the enablement of people to speak their minds and challenge the status quo. That is the foundation of creativity, of innovation, of unleashing the potential of people, no matter what the context.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. I will dive deeper into the topics around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.



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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner