“This is a safe space”— sound familiar? Or a personal favorite, “Everyone should feel empowered to speak up here.”  These common workplace assertions contain many implicit assumptions because whether we are meeting over the internet or in person, the same path to psychological safety is not equitably offered to all just because someone says it is.

This is part two of my series on psychological safety. In part one we covered the basics—what psychological safety is and why it’s important—especially if you care about 🤑. In this piece you’ll read research on the specific ways in which institutional barriers to psychological safety manifest for minorities in the workplace. And, as promised in part one, you’ll learn 10 practical, research-based strategies we’re using at Alley for creating inclusive, psychologically safe workplaces while honoring the intersection of overlapping identities that each team member holds. All of these are strategies you can use immediately in your workplace.

It doesn’t matter how hard you ‘lean in’ if someone keeps leaning on you.

While workplaces are finding ways to improve equity in their companies, women who aspire to leadership positions are often confronted by the glass ceiling—a range of barriers and seemingly insurmountable challenges that their male colleagues do not face. These barriers that reduce tenure and prevent women from making it to the top of their field are embedded into:

You can use the Zoom background feature to bring you to outer space or turn on a SnapCamera filter to soften your features, but at the end of the day these will have no effect on institutional, interpersonal, and systemic barriers to growth. These barriers, in combination with the stagnation of opportunities for growth and development of new skills, cause women to become less likely to reach their full potential. 

The effects of the glass ceiling are more pronounced for those who identify with an intersection of marginalized identities. When considering their barriers to progress and successes in overcoming them, we must take into account the influence of, for example, race, cultural background, religious affiliation, dialect, sexual orientation, and motherhood—identities that simultaneously privilege, oppress, and activate women’s leadership. Let’s look closely at the racial inequity of people in positions of leadership. In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that of the 68 million total women in the United States workforce, those employed in management, business, and financial operations occupations consisted of 11.4% Black women and 10.4% Hispanic and Latinx women, compared to the 16.3% White and 16% Asian women. Women are represented in positions of leadership at low percentages, even though they represent over half of the workforce. Women of color who aspire to leadership positions are often confronted by “racism, management insensitivity, shrinking opportunities, lack of mentors, sexism, and lack of informal networking”—all of which are perceived at varying intensities depending on race and ethnicity.

The complex barriers to leadership are reinforced by institutional systems that more privileged women do not need to contend with. Women who also identify with non-white ethnic groups face the double marginalization of gender discrimination and ethnocentric stereotypes. The battle to fight institutional systems that oppress women is seemingly infinite; however, we are in the midst of a cultural moment that is unifying women and marginalized voices through technology. Connecting remotely has a potential to subvert inequitable patterns of the dominant power culture. The time is ripe for understanding the strengths and limitations of technology as a tool for more equitable workplaces.

Research-based strategies for cultivating psychological safety on distributed teams

Organizing anti bias trainings, drawing attention to negative stereotypes, and educating all employees on the value of cross-cultural learning are a few of the many powerful tools for extinguishing the negative effect these barriers are having on women leaders and their organizations. In addition, here is a list of research-based strategies that we’re using at Alley to cultivate psychological safety on our distributed teams:

Model vulnerability. In modeling your own vulnerability, this welcomes the team members’ vulnerability as well—whether it be seeking help, sharing fears, admitting mistakes, or admitting failure. This atmosphere of vulnerability invites creativity, learning and growth within the leader and a feeling of solidarity and shared experience with others. In the words of one of my mentors, ‘Sharing what’s most personal is most universal’.

Prioritize clear and consistent feedback. Giving and receiving feedback—both praise and criticism—allows individuals and teams to engage with new challenges and self-reflection while driving themselves toward meaningful, quality work. At Alley we often do this by direct messaging co-workers, jumping on a Zoom to talk, and setting aside meeting time to share ‘props’ or expressions of appreciation or celebration for each other.

Encourage inquiry. Whether it’s during Scrum rituals, in Slack, or on a Zoom during a group swarm, encourage team members to ask questions and solve problems in collaboration with their team. This de-stigmatizes the fear of failure or not knowing how to solve a problem, the impact of which is an emphasis on collective problem solving and learning over individualism and heroism. Pro tip: Wait time! Once you ask a question, count to 10 in your head to allow team members to think before moving on.

Set team norms. Norms can help make space for us to be bolder than we might otherwise be. They also help remind us that people learn and work in different ways. Whether it be listening for understanding, silencing Slack channels during meetings, or having courageous conversations about equity, norms are founded in the commitment to mutual understanding.  

Communicate with transparency. Processes that ensure regular and accurate information sharing with all stakeholders make space for inclusion and equity. At Alley we try to discourage private conversations and encourage as much conversation to be as visible as possible across the platforms we use; conversing in public channels in slack instead of direct messages, for example..

Lead in partnership with others. Engage with the team as collaborators and guides rather than as the “team boss”. In order to signal partnership as a leader, offer motivational words, remove technical obstacles or leverage team members’ skills and abilities. This helps continue the flow of ideas and pace of the work so the team can move towards meeting sprint goals and team commitments.

Establish or join a coaching program. Coaching relationships help more novice members navigate the politics of the workplace through collaboration and reflection.

Participate in collegial Inquiry. Collegial inquiry invites purposeful reflecting on assumptions, values, beliefs, and commitments as part of the learning process. (Examples: coaching, professional learning groups, and peer observations)

Use protocols as facilitation tools. Protocols provide structured processes to support focused and productive conversations, build collective understanding, and drive workplace improvement. They build trust by allowing all group members to calculate the risk involved with participating.

Exercise patience and resilience. The road to equity and systemic change is long and difficult. Be patient, meditate, and refuel your own wells of psychological safety so you can help others do the same.

These strategies for building teams are unconventional, less visible, and radical because they shift our paradigm of what it means to connect across the internet. They open the possibility for cultivating psychologically safe teams that work together while remaining physically separate. They require intention that lives in every conversation, every meeting, and every workplace among those individuals bold enough to activate them. Leading teams in this way will press the boundaries of oppression, pave the way for progress, promote interpersonal risk-taking, and ultimately support peak performing teams delivering high quality products.

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