Psychological Safety and Belonging aren't the same… | Gagen MacDonald

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Psychological Safety and Belonging aren't the same thing

Dec 12, 2023

Barbara Hunt is the leader and founder of Gagen MacDonald’s five-person Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEI&B) Council. Danny Kelleher is also a member of the Council.

The complex dance

Diversity advocate and former Netflix Vice President of Inclusion Strategy Vernā Myers famously says that “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

For as many organizations continue to struggle with diversity itself, in our view, it is this latter part of equity-focused work — the dance of true inclusion — that continues to vex companies. Inclusion work is a lot less straightforward than work that is strictly focused on diversity. It’s also a lot harder to measure, as it depends less on who people are on paper and more on how they truly feel.

In the face of complexity, it is very natural and very human to try to make things simple. Often, however, this reaction risks making things seem a bit more simple than they really are, or ought to be.

This is what we have seen happen over the past year with the terms psychological safety and belonging. Many pieces on the topics tend to use the words nearly interchangeably, or to use psychological safety as a general encapsulation of what inclusion means. This webpage from Michigan State, for instance, says that “[p]sychological safety is employees feeling safe to be their full selves at work.” This blog says it “means your team is unafraid that their authentic selves will be at odds with company culture.”

In reality, while psychological safety and belonging overlap, they also have different, distinct meanings. And by recognizing the nuances that separate them, leaders can develop a much clearer picture of what it takes to create a truly inclusive environment.

What the terms mean

Psychological safety has its roots in the study of team performance. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, defines it on our podcast as “permission for candor.” Edmondson’s research, as well as that of many other companies, continues to prove how the teams that manage to be candid, direct and quick to point out mistakes learn more, improve faster and perform the best for their companies. This research is what has elevated the idea of psychological safety to such prominence. It is measurably linked to productivity and team success, and study of it largely focuses on how well team members collaborate on work-related matters. Can employees contribute their ideas openly, without fear of failure? How do people managers respond when they receive criticism? What sort of questions do project leads tend to ask and when? Questions like these get at the heart of psychological safety, and effective interventions around it often start with manager training.

Belonging, though no less important, is a more abstract term. It connects less directly to team performance or productivity and more to the foundational needs of human beings.

John A. Powell, a leader in the study of belonging and Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, defines the term through contrast — as the antidote to the concept of “othering.”

To understand how belonging plays out in your workplace, you can’t just look at work-based collaboration or team norms. You have to explore all the different signals that employees receive about who belongs. The aperture of the concept ranges from structural levels (Are your buildings wheelchair-accessible?) to company norms (Which holidays do you celebrate?) to interpersonal pressures (What clothes do people feel comfortable wearing? What phrases do they feel they can’t use in a Teams chat?).

Like psychological safety, belonging revolves around the general goal of encouraging employees to be themselves.

Why the difference matters

If you want employees — especially those from diverse backgrounds — to stay and thrive, the reality is that you need both psychological safety and belonging in your work environment.

But to fully deliver on either concept — to truly improve inclusion in a workplace — you need to give the ideas separate weight.

It’s possible for a person to feel confident that their candid perspectives on work-related matters matter while still feeling like an outsider within a group on a more fundamental, human level. It’s also possible for a person to feel they belong — that the differences they bring are celebrated and reflected in the group identity — while still not feeling truly empowered to share their honest perspectives about work-related things.

Neither one of these employees is likely to feel included or, by extension, to stay long term.

Inclusion, in other words, is not as simple as it looks when it’s going well, or when leaders try to paint it in broad brush strokes. Part of it needs to focus on the substance of work and part of it needs to look far beyond that, at all the other human realities that define work environments. Companies that recognize these distinct layers will have a much better chance of meaningfully moving the needle on either one.

Inclusion really is a complex dance. And as it tends to go with many complex dances, the best way to start improving is usually to break it down into parts.

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