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Can psychological safety be the missing link to achieve more women in leadership positions?

Updated: May 23, 2023

Psychological safety is the game changer in the aim to promoting inclusiveness and utilizing diversity within the workplace. Enhancing the powerful feeling of belonging that only is accessible to people who feel like they can be their authentic selves and valued for their contribution. Diversity is nothing without psychological safety. In fact, psychological safety is essential for collaboration, learning, and being able to unleash talent and potential. Meaning people can exhibit their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, background, family status, and any other part of their identity without judgment. An organization with psychological safety cultivates a culture where people take risks, speak up, work creatively and innovatively, and can be authentic without fear of reprisal, discrimination, or retaliation. Boston University professor, William A. Kahn, defined in 1990 psychological safety as 'being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.' Harvard professor, Amy Edmondson, define psychological safety as 'a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking'. It is critical for a team or organization to stay or become successful.

Psychological safety value and unleash talent of all people. It can specifically be the missing link in achieving more women in leadership positions. Facilitate a culture and leadership style that encourage development, aspirations, and appreciation of individuals strengths and authenticity. Elevate and encourage organizations, teams, and leaders to transform and enable all people to utilize their potential, knowledge, and growth mindset. We know that Women feel significantly less psychologically safe in organizations with male dominance in general or on specific levels especially leadership level. They fear negative consequences of self-image, performance, status, or career – being stuck in a likeability trap that lead to burnout. In Google’s Project Aristotle, about what drives high performing teams, the key finding was psychological safety. If you don’t feel safe, you don’t speak up and are more likely to leave for some other place. Google examined their structures and focused on implementing behavioral initiatives to improve psychological safety. The key learning here is that examine structures and cultivate a safe culture will not only boost the number of women in leadership positions but create a higher performing organization in the process that is less at risk for 'The Great Resignation'.

Dr. Timothy Clark, has developed The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety that can define the path to inclusion and innovation. All 4 stages help cultivate an environment where people can thrive, feel included, and fully engaged, and contribute with their key expertise, ideas, and effort. First people feel included and accepted; then they feel safe to learn, contribute, and finally, challenge the status quo. We constantly perform threat analyses. If the space is assessed as a safe place, we can contribute with a positive performance response. If not, our fight or flight defensive response will be activated. When we feel threated our survival response will have a negative impact on our performance and wellbeing. The self-censoring instinct shuts down our growth mindset and blocks learning, collaboration, and creativity – loss of human capital. Which is vital for all organizations ability to be relevant for customers and people. The future belongs to those who can cultivate human momentum for all people on individual, team, and organizational level. We will not achieve gender equality on all levels before organizations are redesigned to provide equal conditions and cultivate psychological safety for all people. If we really want more women to become leaders and see leadership positions as an attractive opportunity. Organizations must examine structures, barriers and redesigning their culture and leadership style. Breaking the glass ceiling together with the women, and not expect them to do it by themselves. It is fact that women are challenge in more ways than men, when it comes to achieving leadership positions. For women, especially on leadership level, it can easily become too expensive to be themselves. There are still different expectations to women than men both at work and home. Furthermore, women are challenge by e.g., likeability trap, office housework, and men’s irrational fear of losing their privileges. Cultivating psychological safety will help organizations valuing diversity, equity, inclusion, and achieve the goal of equal representations on all levels. Based on the culture formation hypothesis, the most important factor in the formation of culture is the modeling behavior of the Leader. Psychological safety can be the missing link in achieve more women in leadership positions and a thriving culture for all people, teams, and organizations.

Written by Charlotte Søndergaard the 27 of April 2022


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