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Diversity Culture: How to Bring Psychological Safety to the Workplace 

September 21, 2023

Man and woman working together at desk

If you’ve heard more about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) over the past few years you’re not alone. Although DEI has been around for a while, it’s an area of business that’s been gaining attention over the past few years. 

As movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and Stop Asian Hate have become fixtures within society, so too has become the discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion and psychological safety at work. 

It’s a necessary discussion too. As the world and the workplace grow more diverse and globally connected than ever before, companies need to be able to provide a working environment that supports all of their employees. 

Here, we’ll discuss the value in providing a truly inclusive environment at work, how to fight implicit bias, and provide actionable steps for achieving psychological safety for all of your employees. 

What is DEI? 

DEI stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s a conceptual framework that strives for more fairness and empowerment for individuals who have typically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination in the workplace. 

Different variations of DEI now also exist, such as: 

  • D&I – Diversity and inclusion 
  • DIB – Diversity, inclusion, and belonging 
  • DEB – Diversity, equity, and belonging 

While similar, each does in fact have a unique emphasis. 


Diversity: Acknowledges all the ways people differ, including race, sex, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, and more. 

Inclusion: Is about ensuring all diverse groups in a workplace feel welcome, supported, respected, and valued. 

Equity: Not to be confused with equality. Where equality ensures each person or group receives the same opportunities regardless of circumstance, equity aims to allocate resources based on need. The goal is to offset any imbalances that may already exist. 

Belonging: Belonging happens when people, no matter their differences, feel safe and welcome. Belonging typically occurs when diversity, equity, and inclusion are successfully achieved. 


What is Psychological Safety? 

When you first hear “psychological safety,” you may think of a space with the absence of psychological abuse, like gaslighting or gatekeeping. And while this is true, it’s not the full picture. 

Amy Edmondson is a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization. She coined the phrase “team psychological safety.” 

According to Edmondson, team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s safe to take risks, to express ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences. As Edmondson puts it, “it’s felt permission for candor.” 

This may seem like a simple concept, but in actuality, it’s not a common occurrence in the real world. In fact, research shows that even with increased effort, only 26% of leaders create psychological safety for their teams. 


The 4 Layers of Psychological Safety 

Psychological safety can be broken up into four segments. Some experts think of these segments as layers of a pyramid, building from inclusion safety, to learner safety, to contributor safety, and ending with challenger safety at the top of the pyramid. 

When employees experience feeling safe in all four of these areas, they likely feel psychologically safe at work and teams are more likely to be successful overall. 


Inclusion Safety – Where employees feel valued, treated fairly, and feel like they belong. 

Learner Safety – Where employees feel safe to ask questions, experiment, and learn from mistakes without punishment. 

Collaborator Safety – Where employees feel safe to engage in an unconstrained way, maintain open dialogue, and foster constructive debate. 

Challenger Safety – Where employees feel safe to challenge the status quo, expose problems, and express ideas. 


Breaking down psychological safety into these four categories can help highlight where DEI and psychological safety intersect. Employees who are a part of a marginalized group oftentimes don’t feel inclusion safety, which can affect all other aspects of psychological safety. 

Because diverse teams provide a range of benefits when they’re supported effectively, it’s therefore the role of leaders to take steps to build and ensure psychological safety for all employees. 

Benefits of Having Diverse Teams that Feel Psychologically Safe 

It’s important to acknowledge that it’s not enough to simply hire diverse people. Without laying the foundation for inclusion, you risk missing out on everything your employees have to contribute. 

However, when diverse teams do feel secure in all four areas of psychological safety, the benefits can be significant – both for individuals and businesses. 


Better Business Outcomes 

Arguably the most objective case for supporting diversity is its correlation with improved business performance. Countless studies over the years have linked more diverse companies with better business outcomes, and the trend doesn’t seem to be letting up. 

For example, a 2019 analysis from McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. 

Furthermore, this study also found that the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. In short, the most gender diverse companies were 48% more likely to outperform the least gender diverse companies. 

Another study by McKinsey found that companies with racial and ethnic diversity are 36% more likely to outperform their peers. 


Higher Employee Retention 

A 2021 study by Momentive found that 62% of employees feel that DEI initiatives are an important factor for their company’s ability to drive success. Furthermore, this study found that 78% of people feel that it’s important for them to work for an organization that prioritizes diversity and inclusion, with 58% saying it’s “very important.” 

Additionally, this study also found a correlation between job satisfaction and employees’ perception of whether their company is doing enough DEI initiatives. Workers who said their company wasn’t doing enough for DEI scored a 63 in overall work happiness, compared to 75 for employees who said their company was doing enough or even too much for DEI. 

In fact, people who felt their company wasn’t doing enough DEI scored lower on all areas of job satisfaction. These scores differed particularly drastically in areas of pay and career advancement. 60% of people who said their company isn’t doing enough DEI said they were paid well, compared to 80% and 82% for employees who felt their company was doing enough or too much DEI, respectively. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that employees who feel well paid and have career advancement opportunities are less keen on job hopping. Not to mention the positive impact on engagement and morale when employees feel safe, respected, and like they belong. 


More Innovation 

When a company has a diverse team that feels safe at work, it lays the foundation for more innovative problem solving. Contrasting ideas can flow more easily, stimulating innovation and also helping foresee problems down the line. 

From a marketing standpoint, a more diverse team is better equipped to reach a more diverse audience. And a wider audience means a bigger opportunity for sales. This ability to easily innovate and reach people helps give companies a competitive edge. 


Demonstrates Authentic Company Values 

It’s undeniable that some people won’t see the value in focusing on supporting DEI and some may even be actively against it. But companies will need to decide for themselves which values they choose to uphold. If your organization has any kind of corporate value around community, belonging, inclusion, collaboration, etc., DEI efforts will likely be needed to truly uphold those values. 

In fact, as our social environment continues towards progress, companies now risk being perceived as hypocritical, deceptive, or out of touch if their values don’t match their actions. Luckily, striving for diversity, equity, and inclusiveness will always be strong values that not only benefit your bottom line, but they also benefit your people too.


How to Damage Psychological Safety in the Workplace 

Unfortunately, you may have a diverse team, but unless they feel psychologically safe, they won’t reach their potential. And as a leader, there are many ways to inadvertently damage employees’ feelings of psychological safety at work too. 

Here, we’ll discuss some common ways leaders undermine the psychological safety of their employees. 


Intimidation or Bullying 

One of the most harmful ways to threaten employees’ psychological safety is to bully employees. Rather than pulling on someone’s pigtails, like the bullies of elementary school, workplace bullying can sometimes be disguised as a management style – or even necessary for effective motivation. 

We’ve all heard of a boss publicly firing someone purely to send a message. While this may be an age-old troupe, the sentiment of managing by fear is still prevalent today. Many people believe that fear is a powerful motivator, and while this may be true to a degree, fear in the long term just breeds a toxic work environment. 

When employees are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation, the results can be detrimental. One place where this is retaliation fear is prevalent is in healthcare. 

A 2005 study collected data from more than 1,700 healthcare employees. The participants in the study reported frequent observation of colleagues making mistakes, appearing critically incompetent, or taking dangerous shortcuts — but less than 1 in 10 spoke up about their concerns. 

The nurses in the study cited fear of retaliation, being reprimanded, fear of how others will respond, and appearing incompetent as reasons for not speaking up. Nurses have also reported that they do not feel that anything will change because of their intervention. 

While these nurses saw mistakes and were capable of speaking up, they didn’t feel psychologically safe to challenge others on their teams. 


Forgetting Your Body Language 

Body language is something most of us don’t consciously think about on a regular basis – we exist and interact with others in a way that comes natural to us. However, not being aware of your body language could send a message you’d rather not send. 

For instance, if a minority member of your team notices you sighing when she offers her ideas, she may start to believe you don’t value her opinion. She could start to feel subconsciously that she doesn’t belong, and her sense of inclusion safety is threatened. 

Another example could be folding your arms or furrowing your brow when an employee has to deliver bad news. You may not say that you’re disappointed, but your language says otherwise. This could threaten employees’ sense of learner safety and cause them to be hesitant to admit mistakes in the future. 

While it’s likely that sighing and folding your arms were unintentional, it’s important to be aware of how you present yourself to your team – especially when they may be feeling vulnerable. 


Breaking Promises/Lack of Change 

Psychological safety is strongly tied to trust. Managers need to trust that their employees will try their best and deliver quality work in a timely manner. And employees need to trust that their bosses are looking out for the team’s best interests. 

This trust can begin to break even with small examples of not following through. Telling an employee that they will receive a new computer monitor but letting it fall through the cracks is something that can send the message that employees’ needs aren’t a priority. This can lead to employees feeling undervalued. 

On a similar note, employees who have felt safe to challenge the status quo can soon feel unsafe to continue to if nothing they challenge changes. These employees can be sent the unconscious message that their ideas aren’t valued when they’re never put into action. 



Self-aggrandizing is when someone promotes themselves as being powerful or important. And unfortunately, this is still a common trait amongst executives and leaders today. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many leaders will expect one thing from their employees yet hold themselves to a different standard. 

These leaders may be late to meetings, not reply to emails, or reschedule meetings last minute. At the same time, they expect employees to be on time, reply quickly, and reschedule only with ample notice. 

This kind of double standard naturally creates a divide between leader and employee and sends the message that while you may work together, you’re not really on the same team.


How to Create Psychological Safety at Work 

Knowing what psychological safety is, how to damage it, and how it relates to DEI is the first step in improving psychological safety at your workplace. Go further by implementing our strategies for creating a diverse culture based on psychological safety. 


1. Get a Baseline 

First, it’s important to identify what problems your organization may be facing or which areas you’d like to improve. Try sending anonymous employee surveys to gauge sentiment on certain issues and areas. 

Be aware of making personally identifiable questions required. For instance, requiring someone to identify their race or ethnicity could disclose their identity. In this case, the employee could potentially not respond to the survey at all. 

Asking scale-based questions can be helpful in gaining measurable data. Try questions like: 

  • Are you afraid to be yourself around your peers/superiors? 
  • Are you afraid to make mistakes with peers/superiors? 
  • Are you afraid to raise problems with your peers/superiors? 
  • Do you feel respected by your peers/supervisors? 
  • Do you think it is safe to openly identify as LGBTQIA+ at [Company]? 
  • Do you think it’s safe to openly identify as neurodivergent at [Company]? 
  • Do you think it’s safe to openly identify as a religious minority at [Company]? 

Then, combine this data with HR data on representation, employee turnover, career progression, etc. You should be able to get a feel for some trends from this information alone. 


2. Communicate with Empathy

Starting at the base of psychological safety with inclusion safety, employees first need to feel included, heard, and respected. This means leaders should lead with empathy first. 

Luckily, empathy is something leaders can actively demonstrate through everyday interactions and build it into your company’s culture.  

Demonstrate empathy through: 


  • Active listening – Giving the speaker time to get their ideas out fully, without interruptions. Then repeat back to the speaker what you heard them say. 
  • Avoiding assumptions – Avoiding jumping to conclusions without gathering information first. 
  • Asking clarifying questions – Oftentimes people listen with the intention of responding, not understanding. Rather than focusing on your reply, focus on gaining a deep understanding of what the speaker is trying to communicate. 
  • Avoiding reacting – Rather than firing off an angry email in the heat of the moment, sit with difficult emotions for a moment. Give yourself time to process before responding. 
  • Seeking out differing perspectives – Seeking out perspectives from people on different teams, different ages, different backgrounds, etc. can show that you respect the opinion of everyone. 


This type of communication can help not only the more self-conscious or introverted members on your team feel safe to speak up, but this can also be a critical tool for navigating gender inequities in meetings.  

In fact, the 2019 McKinsey and Women in the Workplace report, surveyed 329 companies and more than 68,000 employees, found that half of the surveyed women had experienced being interrupted or spoken over and 38% had others take credit for their ideas. 

However, having a meeting run by a leader who is empathetic to these struggles can help steer meetings in the right direction and ensure everyone is heard. 


4. Does the Difference Make a Difference?

Before offering suggestions, consider if your edit makes an actual improvement or if it's just a personal preference. Ask yourself if the difference you’re suggesting actually makes a difference to the final result. 

Minimizing feedback to only positive comments and necessary improvements will help build trust within your team. They'll come to know that if you're making a suggestion, it's because it will make the work better for everyone - and it's not just a micromanaging quirk. 


5. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Help employees feel like they belong by encouraging them to form and participate in ERGs. These can be incredible micro-communities within your business, especially for minority groups and those that might not feel represented. 

There is strength in numbers, and ERGs can help your employees feel recognized, seen, and safe. It also gives employees an opportunity to voice thoughts and concerns collectively with like-minded individuals. The leaders of the ERGs can take this feedback and transmit it more cohesively to your leadership teams. 

Remember, diversity and ERGs aren't just about the things we typically see. While you can undoubtedly form ERGs for certain ethnicities, genders, and age groups, you could even create them for religious associations or hobbies—such as coding, painting, or music.


6. Build a Recognition Culture

Every company should practice employee recognition in one form or another. It's simple, accessible, and effective in boosting employee engagement and morale when done right. 

In fact, one study found that when organizations doubled the percentage of team members who felt recognized, those same businesses could expect to experience a 22% decrease in employee absenteeism. Furthermore, this was accompanied by a 9% lift in employee productivity as well. 

Studies have found that employees are nearly 3 times more likely to be highly engaged when they believe they'll be recognized for their work. However, it's important to remember that while sporadically telling your employees thank you may not be a bad thing, it likely won't generate these results. 

Instead, recognition needs to be done intentionally. This can mean: 

There are countless ways to show your employees appreciation. The key is figuring out what resonates with your team and sticking with it. 


7. Hire More Diverse People

No one likes to feel like the odd one out. And while you may not see the minorities on your team as excluded or “other,” they are likely highly aware of their differences in the group. So, one way to minimize this feeling is simply hiring a more diverse team. 

Hiring a more diverse team may mean challenging implicit bias that oftentimes occurs during the interviewing process. 


5 Tips for Fighting Implicit Bias in the Interview Process 

Fighting implicit bias during the interview process is crucial to ensure fairness and diversity in hiring. Implicit biases are unconscious stereotypes or attitudes that can affect our decisions and actions without us even realizing it. Here are some strategies to help combat implicit bias in the interview process:


1. Use Inclusive Language: Use inclusive language in job postings and during interviews. Avoid using gendered or biased language that might discourage underrepresented candidates from applying.

For example, a Harvard study found that job ads using more masculine wording led women to have a lower sense that they would belong in the position or company than the same ads using more feminine wording. However, men showed no difference in anticipated belonging based on either masculine or feminine wording. 


2. Standardize the Interview Process: Develop a structured interview process with consistent questions and evaluation criteria for all candidates. This reduces the chances of making subjective judgments based on unconscious bias.


3. Blind Evaluation: Implement a blind evaluation process where personal information such as name, gender, and age is removed from resumes and applications before they reach interviewers. This can help interviewers focus solely on qualifications and experience.


4. Behavioral Interview Questions: Ask behavioral questions that assess a candidate's skills and experiences, rather than hypothetical or opinion-based questions. Focus on specific, job-related scenarios to gather evidence of their abilities.


5. Use Structured Rating Scales: Consider developing a standardized rating system that interviewers can use to evaluate candidates consistently. Clearly define what constitutes each rating level for various competencies.



In today’s environment, psychological safety in the workplace is something companies can’t afford to neglect. As the workplace becomes more and more diverse and globally connected than ever before, employees from all walks of life need to feel able to be their true selves at work – otherwise the work and our employees suffer. 


Get Started with Terryberry 

Ready to start improving employee engagement at your company? Terryberry can help. We partner with organizations and help build a healthy, thriving work culture through effective employee engagement. 

These solutions include: 

  • Feedback and Communication: Unlock improved feedback and communications with employee and customer feedback solutions. 
  • Wellness Programs: We make it easy to run wellness programs and activity challenges that increase engagement, expand corporate health, and build team camaraderie. 

Ready to learn more? Schedule a demo with our team to get a hands-on walkthrough of how Terryberry can transform the culture of your workplace.