Building a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) program begins with educating your organization’s leaders—current and future. To be successful, this learning must start with the foundation of trust and psychological safety. Only then will teams be able to have productive conversations that lead to meaningful change within their organizations.
This article explains what we mean by trust and psychological safety, why creating a climate of trust and psychological safety are essential leadership skills, and 5 actionable strategies to set this crucial foundation for your DEI&B programs.
What’s the Difference Between Trust and Psychological Safety?
While trust and psychological safety are similar and are often confused for one another, there are important distinctions between the two.
Trust is built in relationships between two people. Trust is deeply personal. Foundational to any DE&I program is developing trust between coworkers and colleagues—and learning how to build trust more quickly, a concept known as “swift trust.”
Psychological safety is building trust within a group. This means people feel that the group is safe for them to be vulnerable; they are empowered to share ideas and be their authentic selves.
It’s important to note that lack of trust between individuals in a group can quickly erode the psychological safety of the larger group. That’s why both of these elements are so critical.
Why are Trust and Psychological Safety So Important?
Trust and psychological safety are foundational to any DE&I program, and they are must-have leadership skills in the modern workplace. Without trust and psychological safety, teams will struggle to have productive conversations about key issues such as race and bias in their organizations. When team members don’t feel safe, they stay quiet—which increases the likelihood that problems will be missed.
The value of trust in the workplace is not new. Neuroscientist and economist Paul Zak’s research shows that people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout than people at low-trust companies. Trust enables better collaboration, and it keeps employees with organizations longer.
According to a 2021 survey by McKinsey, when employees have the psychological safety to ask for help, share ideas, and “challenge the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change.” The survey emphasizes that while psychological safety is a powerful leadership skill, “only a handful of business leaders often demonstrate the positive behaviors that can instill…psychological safety in their workforce.”
Curious how to get started? The following are 5 actionable steps to take to start building trust and psychological safety in your organization and begin realizing the many benefits.
5 Strategies to Build Trust and Cultivate Psychological Safety
- Start with Your Immediate Team
Within any team, the act of building trust begins between the leader and each team member to create a safe space for all. Focus on building and developing trust in these relationships first. Spend time as a team exploring what trust means to each person, and practice learning how to trust more quickly. The trust will extend throughout the entire team.
- Develop a Mindset of Learning
Organizations that experience success in their DEI&B program are oriented towards learning—both self-directed learning and learning together within a group. Teams that successfully build trust and psychological safety come to discussions with their teams in learning mode: engaged, slow to make assumptions, and eager to listen and challenge their own perspectives.
- Explore What Trust Means to You and Others
Recognize that trust differs across cultures and even from person to person. Each person’s lived experiences are different. For example, everyone comes from very different places, has different life and work experiences, and comes from different levels of privilege—or lack thereof. Some team members may be well-versed in terms related to diversity and inclusivity, where others are just learning. Some have first-hand experience with racism, sexism, or other biases, where others may not have experienced these things first-hand. All these individual experiences contribute to how and why people trust others.
- Understand What Others Need to Feel Safe
Like trust, people have unique needs when it comes to feeling psychologically safe. In The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Dr. Timothy Clark details the four overarching components of psychological safety:
- Inclusion safety – This type of safety addresses the basic human need to have a sense of belonging. Individuals should feel that they are accepted for being their unique selves.
- Learner safety – People want to feel supported in the learning process, especially in vulnerable situations such as expressing misunderstanding or knowledge gaps, asking questions, or making mistakes.
- Contributor safety – When contributing to a project, a person’s specific input and skillsets should be valued and meaningful.
- Challenger safety – Individuals should feel safe to challenge assumptions, speak up about conflict, or disagree with colleagues and leaders.
- Learn How to Respond
When team members speak up and share something difficult, how team members—especially leaders—respond is critical to maintaining the psychological safety of the group. It takes consistent attention and practice to respond effectively in the moment when that response is needed most. Both independent practice and collaborative exercises can help leaders learn how to respond to potential scenarios in a way that reinforces trust and psychological safety.
Ready to Build Your Organization’s Inclusive Leadership Skills?
Building trust and psychological safety is a powerful leadership capability—one that must be learned, developed, and put into practice over time. The tips above will give you a head start, but there’s no replacement for making DE&I learning a continuous and ongoing effort among your organization’s leaders.
A leadership development platform like Paycor Paths gives managers the human skills they need to lead in the modern workplace—such as expanding their capability for inclusive leadership. Unlike one-time training seminars, Paycor Paths provides a continuous learning cycle to reinforce learning with experiential and collaborative activities that yield real, lasting outcomes.