Psychological safety is an important component of creating a workplace where everyone can thrive, but it takes on extra significance for people from underrepresented groups. Wharton’s Ingrid Nembhard explains why.

In honor of Juneteenth, the Ripple Effect podcast is showcasing a special series of conversations on equity and opportunity, diving deep into the complex issues of racial inequality, bias, and representation within organizations. This special will be led by guest host Kenneth Shropshire, faculty director of Wharton’s Coalition for Equity and Opportunity.


What Is Psychological Safety?

Kenneth Shropshire: Ingrid, two things really capture me about your work are psychological safety and organizational learning. As I was reading the work, I had the advantage to think about it in terms of this DEI space and what workplaces are doing. Maybe we could just start off if you explain to us what psychological safety is in the workplace.

Ingrid Nembhard: Psychological safety is the belief that it’s safe to take interpersonal risk at work. What do I mean by interpersonal risk? You’re taking an interpersonal risk at work when you do things like speak up with a question or a concern, raise an idea, point out a mistake, or critique a plan that has been offered by someone else. In any of those situations, you’re taking a risk. You’re taking a risk that you’re voicing something that may be uncomfortable for other people to hear. When you’re psychologically safe, you feel that it’s OK to take that risk, and that you’re not going to be punished. You’re not going to be devalued. You’re not going to not receive a promotion. You’re not going to get the worst office, the worst schedule because you decided to share something in the organization that had not been said before.

Shropshire: So, there’s actually a name for this thing, the idea of putting your head down and doing your work and not doing anything else.

Nembhard: Right. That’s what people do in the workplace when they don’t feel psychologically safe. They close in. They don’t voice. And when they’re not voicing, they’re not voicing things on both sides of the spectrum. They’re not voicing their more creative ideas or ideas for how to change work because that seems risky. They’re also not voicing things that are going wrong, or problems that the organization needs to learn about in order to be better for both its employees and its customers.

There’s a downside when people don’t feel psychologically safe at work. Psychological safety is really the idea that you can speak candidly about whatever is on your mind relevant to the workplace, and that it will not be held against you.

Shropshire: One of the earlier pieces that you did talked about a medical professional who wouldn’t speak up to a more senior medical professional because of this psychological safety issue. I can only think about how devastating that could be, how that’s exactly what you don’t want in that kind of setting.

Nembhard: It was my very first study, actually, that you’re pointing out. I’ve now seen it over and over again in health care, and it’s been proven over and over again. Ken, you come from a legal background. Imagine the junior associate in the practice speaking up to the partner in the practice. All those put you in vulnerable positions. In health care, we see certainly it follows the status hierarchy. Whether or not a nurse feels like she can speak up to a physician or a surgeon and say, “You’re operating on the wrong body part.” This happens. Or, “You need to wash your hands.” Because we all know you need to wash your hands to prevent infection, so it’s not out of malice. Does someone lower in status say, “You forgot to wash your hands before you touched the patient?” It can have life or death consequences in the context of health care. But it is just as significant in other industries, in other ways, in terms of do you invest in that drug or not? Do you change the organizational process in that way or not, and what are the ramifications of that?

Shropshire: I keep thinking about my first jobs and the idea of keeping my head down. I’m not going to say anything. My earliest jobs were carrying steel bars in a warehouse and loading freight on boxcars. I can see some things going wrong, and I’m just trying to get myself away from that. I’m not thinking about the whole organization. I’m thinking about me.

Nembhard: That’s exactly right. When we look at the literature, what the literature and the experience would suggest is that people think about what the consequences are for them as the individual, not the consequences for the organization. We can make a guess about what the consequences will be for us, whether that will be positive or negative. Seeing the consequences for the organization can be much more uncertain, and they could be delayed. My punishment can be immediate if someone doesn’t appreciate what I say.

Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace to Address DEI Issues

Shropshire: [Let’s talk about psychological safety in the workplace with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.] Something seems wrong to either a person who is a member of a diverse group, who’s Black or Hispanic, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or whatever it might be. They see something wrong in the workplace, or they hear something that they think is inappropriate. The natural hesitation, especially in a majority-based organization, is, “I don’t want to be the one to raise that issue.” This fits squarely in the kind of research that you’re doing, because the end result is that you should say something because it might make the organization better.

Nembhard: Exactly. I would not be considered a DEI researcher. I have been studying psychological safety for many years. But the two, I do believe, are intertwined. You can be diverse along many dimensions. Often when we talk about the reason diversity becomes relevant is that people who are considered “more diverse” tend to have lower status in the organization. Much like my nurse has lower status than my physician, or my medical assistant has lower status than my nurse, that puts you in a position where you’re much more vulnerable, and where there’s a higher propensity to not feel psychologically safe. Because you know that you are different, and you understand your place in the hierarchy.

Unless an organization or your team leader has made a significant effort to be welcoming of all voices and all diversity, and to create an inclusive space, the default that we feel as individuals is to protect ourselves. We don’t take that risk because we know that there may be serious consequences, and we have seen those consequences for others.

We’re humans, and we learn from experience. If I’m in a meeting with you and other people, and I see someone else in the room who is maybe higher status than me, because they are less diverse than me, raise their hand and the reaction is not positive by others in the room, I learn immediately that I should not raise my hand. That is even more likely to happen to me because I don’t have the social capital for people to say, “Oh.” No, they’ll say, “Oh, that was a half-baked idea.” When you are diverse, and you’re typically aware you’re diverse, you’re more conscious. You know when you’re taking a risk, and you’re conscious.

Shropshire: We’ve said in some other conversations that you don’t want that diversity issue to be the dominant thing that people turn to you for, either. That’s another reason that may be unique among reasons why you don’t speak up. You’re not pegged in a space. But once, as a diverse person, you start to speak on these issues, then you almost give license for leadership to turn to you.

Nembhard: I have experienced this myself. There is the “becoming responsible for these issues” is itself its own issue, right? And how much do you want to speak about this issue? How much do you want to be the bearer of this issue? Will you be included after you have spoken up about this issue, if you are truthful about what you have observed in the organization?

My colleague, Amy Edmondson, who’s at Harvard Business School, and I introduced this concept of inclusive leadership, or leadership inclusiveness, in our work in the health care setting. We make this argument that there is the invitation to speak, and then the reaction that happens, and the response to that. We’ve all been situations where we’ve been invited. Maybe we’ve been invited to sit on the DEI committee. And then you actually participate because you think you have received a genuine invitation to play a role in bringing the organization along in this way. And then the consequences are not positive for you. We’ve all experienced the invitation not followed by the positive outcome that we hoped for.

Shropshire: The greater frame to your work with this DEI space is, it’s fine to create whatever kind of DEI programs you want. But you also have to have an awareness of the psychological safety issue as you do so. Then the added issue becomes, if I don’t do it and word gets out that I don’t do it, that’s another issue from my community. You know, “He was asked, and he didn’t do it. He didn’t want to support his community.”

Nembhard: I love that you raised the point. I think we’re seeing a lot of organizations are thinking about how to improve belonging and diversity, all of it. And that is a wonderful thing. We have hoped for this for many years. And I think we’re still figuring out how to do it. I applaud organizations for the many efforts that they try. But what you said is exactly right. Unless the climate really does allow for the free voicing for people to take a risk and deal with these topics truthfully and honestly and candidly, it doesn’t matter how many initiatives you announce. Because there is a climate that has to be built within the organization in order for the organization to do hard work. That is hard work. Diversity and DEI is hard work.

This is something that organizations have to learn. They have to learn how to do this, and learning is hard. Teams can’t learn to be different with each other unless there is psychological safety. Your point about all these initiatives, yes. It’s who you choose to be on them, for sure. There’s also the process and what happens once you’ve put them together. Unless they have this foundation, it will be extremely hard for them to take flight in the way that you might hope.

How Do Leaders Go About Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace?

Shropshire: If I’m a leader and I’m going to be focused on psychological safety, I need to contemplate inclusiveness in what I do. That means, make sure you’re not excluding or going overboard with including. And a good way to do that is to be aware of the vulnerability of people as you engage in this journey.

This idea of, how do you not discourage the nurse from speaking up? It’s kind of that baseline idea. By the same token, you certainly don’t want that young intern doctor that learned that thing in class that the senior doctor didn’t learn, and won’t speak up in the operating room as my heart’s about to take the last beat unless they give me the drug that this kid knows about. So please speak up!

Nembhard: Please speak up.

Shropshire: I want to talk about the learning part that you raised — organizational learning and how to best make that happen. Somewhere in your work, I saw the phrase “how to learn better and faster,” as the framing that goes into place. If we’ve got leaders thinking about psychological safety, what kinds of things do we want to leave them in terms of improving the learning that takes place in the organization?

Nembhard: The psychological safety piece is about setting the foundation and the climate. Then the question becomes, what do you do? What are we able to do, as a group of workers, to make things better? That’s the learning piece. Maybe the thing that is most relevant is the importance of learning activities that really help people understand how and why they are doing what they’re doing. In some of our work, we’ve distinguished between activities that are learning activities, or “learn what.” And then we have another class called “learn how.”

You can think about “learn what” activities as, “Ken, let me give you an article about DEI, so you will read the article and you will magically be my DEI guru, because I have given you an article.” Our work doesn’t show that that necessarily leads to the performance benefits and improvements that you want to see. You have to educate. But when you’re using learning activities that allow people to understand why that’s important, and how that is important, and how that will manifest in the consequences that we desire, those types of learning activities make a difference.

In the health care space, sometimes that is doing your plan-do-study-act cycle. Let’s put something in. Let’s try it out. Let’s learn from it. Let’s circle back around. Being very intentional about those more active learning activities, those deliberate learning activities, can make a huge difference. But we know that workers are not excited about engaging in those activities unless they have that foundation and feel safe to do it. There’s the safety, there’s the resources, there’s all the things we teach in business school about getting things done.

But we need these complements. I do think it is important, as we move forward in thinking about DEI, that it might be useful to organizations to position it as, “We are learning how to do this better.” It’s the difference between a performance like, “We’re going to be great at this tomorrow,” versus, “We’re on a journey together to be better at including all of the voices around the table.” That allows for some failures to happen along the way, and for us to recover and try something new again and keep at it.

Shropshire: As we’re talking, I’m thinking about all of this in terms of my adult kids. They have been of that generation that gets triggered, and what’s the other word? “I want to bring my genuine self.”

Nembhard: Your authentic being.

Shropshire: Yeah. We had a discussion of why that’s very important. I’m thinking about my kids in this sense: We don’t often enough give the why. With kids, it’s “because I said so.” It sounds like the best leaders are not saying, “Take this document. Do it because I said so. And I don’t care how you feel about it.”

Nembhard: It’s never good to tell people you don’t care about them, as a general principle, as a leader. We don’t recommend that on the organizational side. But it makes a huge difference to explain to people why they’re doing something, what their role is, and why their role matters. It’s a difference-maker. I will say, many people come to work wanting to deliver for themselves, their teams, and their clients and their customers. People don’t go to work wanting to have bad days. Nobody does. It’s a matter of helping people understand how they fit. And when they understand how they fit, and they contribute to the greater good, that’s motivating. You want to provide that. You also want to provide an opportunity for people who are at the frontlines, who really do know what’s going on, to share that with you. You want to hear their creative ideas.