There’s No Psychological Safety Without Equity

There’s No Psychological Safety Without Equity

There’s No Psychological Safety Without Equity 1125 750 Brook Thorndycraft

I had a great conversation with someone the other day about an important, yet often overlooked nuance in the idea of team psychological safety: there’s no such thing, without an equity approach.

When a team assesses psychological safety without integrating a deep equity analysis, they aren’t necessarily learning anything about the fundamental safety of their team. 

What is team psychological safety?

The most commonly used definition of team psychological safety was developed by Amy Edmondson. She defines it as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This is a really important element of workplace wellbeing. It’s also very important to well functioning teams. Without it, it’s far too easy to fall into groupthink, ignore important information, and keep repeating the same problems. 

Many workplaces have undergone psychological safety assessments in recent years, as there is a growing awareness of the many benefits to having a psychologically safe team. But having a high score on an assessment does not necessarily mean that the team is psychologically safe. Many teams will appear on an assessment as safe because everyone on the team is generally coming from similar identities, perspectives and experiences. That doesn’t mean it would be safe for a new person joining who doesn’t fit the group norm.

The relationship between safety and diversity

This is unfortunately quite common. Every team develops its own norms and ways of being, and these are often taken for granted. 

What feels safe for the majority, especially when that majority reflects dominant groups in society (white, male, etc), is often very different from what would feel safe for people who are not part of those dominant groups.

And often the people on the margins of the group have limited choices, because they are the only ones who understand there is a problem with the so-called safety. They might just go along with the majority to get along, or they might leave because the group feels unsafe and unwelcoming. At worst, sometimes people are brave or fed up enough to take the risk of speaking up. They say what they really think, make people uncomfortable, and then are punished: called “not a fit” for the culture, accused of creating a lack of safety, or just ignored until they eventually feel no options but to leave. 

To add to this, the more the majority of people on the team reflect the dominant norms in society, the less likely they are to notice that this is happening and the more normal the team’s way of being will seem. The more “normal” our norms seem to us, the more surprising, uncomfortable, and therefore threatening, it can feel when someone challenges those norms. 

Safety is not the same as comfort

But here’s the thing: team psychological safety is not about comfort. It actually means that we have enough trust and emotional agility as a group to feel the discomfort of disagreement when it comes up, and still be open to listening and learning. We can be uncomfortable and also grateful that someone has taken the risk to name the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. It means being humble enough to be able to acknowledge that the things that make the majority feel safe might be causing harm to people outside of that majority. 

If we truly want the benefits of psychological safety on our team – to really enjoy the team’s best thinking – we need to be willing to question the feeling of entitlement to comfort that we sometimes confuse with psychological safety. 

So you can either have a “psychologically safe” team that feels safe enough for interpersonal risk taking because people more or less agree with each other and share very similar identities and experiences, or you can strive for an equitable psychological safety in which everyone generally feels safe enough, most of the time, to take interpersonal risks.  

This second option is harder. It takes more work. But it’s more robust, and it’s also the ethical and equitable choice. 

Finding the paths to equitable psychological safety

Getting to true psychological safety means incorporating an equity lens, and here are some ideas about what that might look like: 

  • Expanding our willingness to have uncomfortable conversations about how our norms and ideas of safety might not feel safe to everyone. One person’s need for safety might feel very unsafe for someone else. How can we hold an awareness of both of those needs, while also making sure that the people with less access to safety’s needs are prioritized?
  • Deepening and internalizing the team’s understanding of the value of diverse perspectives and experiences.
  • Asking serious questions about who is a part of the team and who’s not, and being curious about why not.
  • Expanding capacity to wonder what perspectives might be unspoken in the room, and why that might be. Finding ways to support them to be spoken. 
  • Enlisting knowledgeable support as needed, to explore more about these whys, and figuring out how to shift them. 
  • Considering the sorts of things the team seems most agreed upon, and be curious about that. Do we really agree? Are there parts of us that are just going along to not rock the boat? 
  • Recognizing that because of historical and ongoing institutional oppression there are going to be people who will always feel unsafe in groups that are maintaining standard ways of doing things. We may never feel fully safe together. That can be frustrating and uncomfortable, but we can question those standard ways of doing, and strive for as much safety as possible.

It’s not a quick or easy undertaking. In fact, creating psychological safety in diverse groups is a constantly moving target. But the benefits of increasing your team’s psychological safety are immense: for the wellbeing of individuals, and the team’s ability to achieve its goals, it’s essential. 

Grateful for the important conversations this work involves, and for the difficult topics folks engage me in!


I’m about to do a deep dive into team psychological safety with a small cohort of leaders, as part of my Generative Conflict offering, starting October 3rd. If you are thinking about joining this cohort and are curious about this or its other key focus areas of emotional agility, communication, power dynamics and leading through conflict, please reach out to chat.