May 27, 2017

The One Tool to Improve the “Psychological Safety” of Women in the Workplace.

Editor’s Note: Please click here for part one of this article. 


In her TEDx talk, “Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace,” Dr. Amy Edmondson says managers, “need to free people up…to really engage and not be afraid of each other,” and she offers three ways to facilitate that freedom: 1. “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem; 2. Acknowledge your own fallibility; 3. Model curiosity.”

In the 2016 movie, “Hidden Figures,” the NASA manager, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), articulates the rationale for everyone to play “all-in” for the team: “We’re putting a human on top of a missile shooting into space and it’s never been done before…Everyone is going to have their work checked [because]…everything we do between now and then is gonna matter.”

He also acknowledges his own fallibility: “I need a mathematician that can look beyond the numbers…math that doesn’t yet exist.” And models curiosity: “…maybe it’s not new math.”

In 1961, Virginia defended Jim Crow laws. The racism, sexism, and “chain of command” do not make NASA a psychologically safe environment for women and people of color. “They’ve never had a colored in here before, Katherine. Don’t embarrass me,” says NASA supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) to Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Hensen) as she stands holding her box about to enter a room full of “genius” white men, whose work she will be checking.

And yet, it happens. The innovation, high performance teamwork, and psychological safety.

“Hidden Figures” demonstrates that we can build and break psychological safety anywhere with a careful or careless comment. This is life. We all bob and weave through a range of safe and unsafe places. We all have the opportunity to inject psychological safety into each moment with the way we set the stage and respond to it. The moments add up to cultures.

As peers, we can build psychological safety. We can be heroes like Katherine Johnson at NASA. She put her best work forward, and she supported her peers.

As organizations, we can’t wait for people to be brave. We have to create environments that call forth heroes. It takes intentional actions from management, like Dr. Edmondson describes and “Hidden Pictures” demonstrates, to signal safety to the courageous, and that their new ideas and questions are welcome and will be included in building solutions.

What is the difference that results in psychological safety and high performance for all people to engage in every room?

The first article I read about Google’s research concluded, “In short, just be nice.” Maybe, in a way, but nice—pleasant, agreeable, socially acceptable—oversimplifies this profound challenge of being human. It could even sound condescending to those of us going for high performance on a team.

One key is embracing this omnipresent reality: People make mistakes.

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dr. Edmondson observed that the high performance teams behaved “wildly different” in their relationship to mistakes. “They were actively talking about errors, what to learn from them, and how to prevent them.”

When we are scared of making a mistake or of how an authority figure, even a colleague or friend, will respond to a new idea or unusual question, we tend to shut down creativity and focus on survival. If an eyebrow raises, a snarky tone murmurs, or an email admonishes—even if simply no one in the room acknowledges an outlier’s idea—these common reactions stimulate fear and discourage people from learning together.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou

The high performance team culture embraces each mistake as a step closer to the innovation that does work. Worker knowledge about the seemingly simplest job can lead to innovations and great savings.

I heard this telltale story at an innovation conference. In a city facing a budget deficit, the management team asked everyone for ideas, and made it clear that no one would lose their job. The clerk whose job it was to send notices to water customers did so via certified mail at a cost of $3.30 each, plus the labor to prepare the certified mail envelope.

She asked, “Is it required to send the notices certified mail?” She did the legal research and the answer was, “No, but it’s always been done that way.” For the size of her city and the number of notices, her questioning of the status quo saved the city over $40,000 annually. And the clerk ended up with a much more interesting job than repeatedly preparing certified mail envelopes.

See, it’s really worth going for this higher performing team; psychological safety pays off for people, organizations, and society. It takes a combination of courage, kindness, and centeredness to speak up over our fear of how people will react.

So what’s the recipe? Where’s the training? Have courage, speak up, ask questions, be humble, facilitate meetings, design good agendas, understand different personality types and temperaments, don’t over-react to mistakes, forgive, be encouraging, be nice—all these things are part of creating psychological safety. We can all go to lots of trainings and learn lots of useful skills. We should keep training and learning these new tips.

But, just as people making mistakes is a ubiquitous reality, so is being reactionary. Our reactions are the mines in the minefield.

How do we avoid making the careless comment in a reactive moment? How can we build our resilience to not react to other people’s thoughts and feelings, however they are expressed?

What is the one meta-action, the one behavior that has the efficacy to make our awareness, our energy, our perspective, our listening and speaking—our entire application of skills—generative of psychological safety?


From Paramahansa Yogananda to the Dalai Lama, Steve Jobs to George Harrison, Sharon Salzberg to little ole me and you, mediation is the action that is potent enough to calm and release us from our own reactivity.

“When the mind is calm, how quickly, how smoothly, how beautifully you will perceive everything.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda

“By the power of concentration and meditation, you can direct the untold power of your mind to accomplish what you desire, and you can guard all doors through which failure may enter.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda

When we meditate, we don’t have to fear other people’s reactions to our ideas or mistakes—as I did as a child—because we can hear our intuition and respond with it, instead of whizzing by those knowing feelings into the tumble of reactions.

When we meditate, we can see and align with what’s trying to happen with the team. We can lift the solutions that are signaling their emergence, asking to be revealed.

When we meditate, the stream of judgments, which often flow unbidden, releases our hearts from its contracting hold. We can connect with people, hear their needs, their ideas, and add our own. We learn together. The world around us calms. The team gels.

“It takes courage and committed discipline to sit with yourself in stillness and silence every day, to see who you really are—openly and honestly—and great humility to bow to your higher self and promise to honor that part of you in all interactions,” wrote one person pledging their meditation hours to the movement Be the Change.

When we meditate, we create psychological safety within ourselves. When we have it, we give it to the people around us.




Author: Jacqueline Debets 
Image: “Hidden Figures” still
Editor: Travis May

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