UN Stress Counselor, Kamala McWhinney

by Kamala McWhinney


One predictor of high performance in teams is a high level of Psychological Safety.

Psychological Safety is defined as the state that exists in a team where a team member feels that “it is not too expensive to be myself.” In effect the possible expenses can be social, emotional and economic and can manifest as the fear of losing face, censorship, lost opportunities and experiencing anxiety.

More formally, Psychological Safety is "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career."

Consider the experiences under which many women work globally. According to the UN “Women stand at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organizers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic. The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.”

The 2020 McKinsey report underscores this point within the US context: Women in particular have been negatively impacted. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. And the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders.

As it relates to underrepresentation of women In the US Context, the Mckinsey report highlighted a modest 4 % increase in the number of women represented in the C-Suite between 2015 and 2020.

When we enter the social spaces within which we work we perform threat analyses. Where we assess the space as being safe, there is a positive performance response. Where we deem the space to be unsafe, a defensive mode is often triggered and this can lead to a survival response. This leads to cognitive impairment, which has a negative impact on performance.

Ultimately, the defensive mode leads to the loss of human capital contribution and this is why psychological safety is not just a fancy framework but a powerful and practical tool for increasing team performance, employee retention and innovation. Think about it personally. What has your response been in the face of negative social situations such as facing negative stereotypes, being punished for an honest mistake or having someone else take credit for your work?

As emotional creatures, these experiences trigger pain centers in the brain in the same way that physical pain does.

I outline below the 4 stages of Psychological Safety as put forward by Dr. Timothy Clark. I encourage you to reflect on the status quo within your own team especially through the lens of women, and the layers of challenges they often face.

Inclusion Safety: When there is Inclusion safety, a team member feels included. Inclusion is a human right. There is an inherent worthiness in each member of the human race. Creating Inclusion safety requires teams and team leaders to notice and value each member for their being.

Learner Safety: When there is Learner Safety, a team member feels safe to learn, ask questions, give and receive feedback, experiment and make mistakes. When work cultures do not support learner safety, team members operate in defense mode, focusing on self-preservation and self-protection. This disrupts the learning process.

We all bring some anxiety into learning spaces To the extent that a team can work to disconnect failure and mistakes from fear, they can vastly improve learning experiences.

Contributor Safety: The safety to contribute. When there is contributor safety, the team is given autonomy and accountability in exchange for results. To the extent that a leader can create contributor safety, a feeling of self-efficacy is developed within team members. In many cases women’s contributions are suppressed or taken without reciprocal acknowledgement. Leaders and influencers can act to shift cultures like this by first being honest in accepting the reality and then by employing intentional strategies such as those listed in this article.

Challenger Safety: The safety to challenge the status quo. At this highest level of risk and vulnerability, dissent is rewarded. Intellectual bravery and creative abrasion are welcomed and actively encouraged. When arguments can be discussed on their merit and not on the assigned or perceived merit of the person proposing the argument, true innovation can emerge. In effect challenger safety is a license to innovate.

Redesigning Culture

It’s imperative that Culture be aligned for psychological safety of all, especially for women and those who have minoritized identities.

The good news is that culture is a designable asset.

Based on the Culture Formation Hypothesis, the most important factor in the formation of culture is the modeling behaviour of the Leader.

The current global crisis offers a rare opportunity to tackle the mammoth task of culture re-design. As Dr. Timothy Clark eloquently states “Crisis liquefies the status quo.” So Leaders, you have the chance to recast your organization and team cultures right in this moment.

Here are some practical tools:

Using Basic Regard

Call persons by their names. If you choose to shorten or edit their names for your own comfort and preferences, that behaviour acts to oppose Inclusion Safety.
Notice persons and let them know that you see them. Notice their absence. Make reference to it. Reflect on whether or not you see the inclusion of ALL members of your team as a human right. If you have any qualifiers or ranking for inclusion, be courageous in exploring those more deeply. There are biases at play.

Show your team that you are engaged

Being present can be communicated by attending behaviour such as maintaining eye contact, limiting distractions when team members speak to you, and practicing active listening. Listening is a powerful tool especially when used to understand others and their perspectives. Seek first to understand and then to be understood.

In virtual context, where routine and rote are commonplace try to dispense with the superficialities. Encourage the team to respond authentically to the hackneyed question of “How are you?” A simple question of “Is that how you are really doing?” can have a profound impact on communication authentic engagement. Also, as we are connecting virtually as often as we do try paying closer attention to the non-verbal and body language cues and use video and voice as often as possible.

Minimize Blaming

Lead with curiosity vs blame. Use collaborative language and adopt a learning mindset. Instead of stating “you keep making this mistake” ask “how can we ensure this does not happen again?” or “what do you think needs to happen here?”

Model Self-Awareness & accountability

This includes owning your unique preferences, conflict styles and how you work best. Encourage your team members to do the same. This helps to flatten the culture. It sends a strong message of inclusivity.

This also includes being open to feedback. Your team should feel able to raise objections to your ideas and actions where they are due. In a psychologically safe team, a leader encourages intellectual and creative friction. Especially if your team is in the business of producing, cultivating challenger safety is paramount for driving the innovation needed to thrive.

Ask for feedback when you give feedback

A thoughtful question such as “How could I have shared that more effectively?” can go a long way in building trust and vulnerability.

Build empathy into your communication

Especially in dealing with team members who have identities different from your own, use the following reflections:

-This person is balancing a lot in this pandemic just like me
-This person has goals and dreams just like me
- This person has insecurities just like me

Celebrate Intellectual Bravery

Intellectual bravery is the willingness to disagree. Being disagreed with may feel uncomfortable at first but be mindful of the difference between dissent and disrespect. Avoid lumping the two things. For women of colour in particular, feeling safe to challenge can be a difficult thing. There is a sort of catch-22 wherein if women of colour do speak up they can be characterized as aggressive. As a leader or influencer be mindful of helping team members to challenge their own biases and create space for women’s voices.

Model Vulnerability

Especially when navigating new learnings, fear of looking inept can be high for some team members. Leaders and influencers can create Learner safety by sharing vulnerably about a recent failure they had. Asking everyone to teach can also aid in increasing safety.

Avoid Micromanaging by using the following guide:

A. Explain the Why.
B. Assign the What.
C. Delegate the How.
D. Recognize contributions

Create a culture of allyship

Women, specifically women of colour and trans-women, often experience significant stress and anxiety in work spaces. If you have privilege you can become an ally for greater inclusion and representation for minortized bodies and voices. We all have privilege. I encourage you to be intentional in amplifying the voices of those less privileged based on their race, non-immigrant status, age, gender, language, size, sexual identity, country of origin or neurotypical status.

The pandemic has highlighted the commonality of our humanity. It’s as good a time as any to dismantle the forces that have created siloes among us.

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