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Building psychological safety at scale, with Madison Butler

When it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts in organizations, often the major focus is placed solely on hiring diverse talent. And while this is an important step, without a psychologically safe and inclusive environment to support and value these employees, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to retain and engage your staff.

We were recently joined on The Shortlist by the incredible Madison Butler to discuss this topic. Founder and CEO of Blue Haired Unicorn, Madison is a DEI truth-teller and HR changemaker dedicated to helping organizations become safer and more inclusive spaces. During the show, she gave an abundance of keen insight and practical advice that was universally applicable. Take a look below!

Psychological safety

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety can often be a tricky concept to fully understand, especially when defining it in the context of a corporate setting. Madison describes it as “the act of existing without fear,” but further clarified it by proffering an important hypothetical question:

“Am I allowed to show up the same way that the person next to me is showing up?”

This really gets to the crux of the issue. It forces everyone to self-reflect, as if the answer is no, then chances are your organization isn’t psychologically safe. When people must tuck pieces of themselves away just to be worthy of a pay cheque, it belies any sense of equity or inclusion. Madison referred to it as putting on a mask every day, wearing the “right” clothes, laughing at the “right” jokes, all in an effort to fit a status quo created by the culture and structures of your organization. When employees don’t feel safe to be themselves without reproach, it generates incredible amounts of stress and negativity, stifling innovation, creativity, and well-being. And this can affect EVERYONE, but often it’s marginalized people who generally feel the brunt of this. “The more identities you hold,” Madison tells us, “the harder it is to find an area where you can exist.”

What is the first port of call for creating psychological safety?

According to Madison, a lot of the responsibility does sit with senior leadership. “Nothing changes if the top doesn’t put in the work,” she says, adding that “leadership has to set the precedent that everyone gets to show up however they need to.” And this makes sense, because even if a person doesn’t feel safe, they still need to be able to pay the bills and put food on the table – it’s not their responsibility to fix the organization or save themselves in the context of work.

However, when it comes to baking this concept into the DNA of a business, there is also an onus on everyone to play their part. As Madison states: “so much of this is self-work” and that’s often why it can be so difficult. You must constantly be self-aware and call yourself out on your own actions and thoughts. The process never ends either. The act of educating yourself on the experiences of others, being transparent in how you operate and treat people – this is ongoing. Madison believes this is where most of the hard work has to happen. People will dig their heels in and not want to admit that they’ve caused harm, but without this honest conversation, progress simply cannot be made. And it’s true for everyone. “This area is something that is ever-changing,” Madison says, “I’m still learning every single day.”

Madison will also be joining us as a guest speaker for our next instalment of SocialTalent Live!

The tactical advice

“Allyship and the act of being inclusive is a verb.” It’s an important point to remember and one that is constantly echoed by DE&I professionals. Creating psychological safety requires real work. It’s not about attending once-off seminars or completing a course. There is nothing one-and-done about building an organization where people can thrive. Madison gave a hugely beneficial piece of advice in relation to this:

Psychological safety

This kind of proactivity and dedication relates back to everything we have been discussing. No-one should feel like an after-thought or be excluded. When Madison is teaching this, she follows a framework.

  1. Education: this is all about understanding the ‘why’ behind psychological safety and its importance.
  2. Self-work: these are the hard conversations that must be had.
  3. Eliminate the trash: you must dismantle the oppressive systems, policies and people that are already in place and rid the company of harm.

The outcomes of psychological safety

Psychologically safe environments lead to more inclusive cultures where belonging and acceptance flourish. This is the primary result. However, it also creates an atmosphere where everyone can feel safe in being wrong. As Madison states, “being safe to fail also means you are safe to try new things.” If your organization lacks innovative zeal, perhaps the issue doesn’t lie with your people’s ability, but their sense of safety when it comes to the act of trying. Being held in a lock of fear in relation to negative treatment, ridicule, or loss of job stifles creativity. By allowing for mistakes and margins of error, your teams can flex and grow. And as Madison says, “when our people grow, the organization grows too.”

Building psychological safety puts power back into the hands of your employees. It leads to increased trust and loyalty as people feel valued, respected and seen. Sometimes even the smallest gestures can have an enormous impact on this front. Madison gave us an example of asking people if they want to turn their cameras on or off at the start of a meeting. It’s a personal choice and a comfort to some. Or, understanding and adapting communication styles with your team to allow meaning and clarity to flow with more ease.

The final word

Advocating for and embracing better psychological safety in a workplace is no easy task. However, it’s the right thing to do. Yes, there are gains to be had in terms of increased engagement and retention, but creating an environment that is inclusive, welcoming, safe, and respectful is its own reward. Madison left us with one crucial piece of advice: “you can’t let your ego drive you.” You will mess up. You will do and say the wrong thing. And if you let your ego step in, you will falter and not make progress. “Stick with it,” Madison implores, because failure is just another step towards growth.

Catch Madison’s full appearance on The Shortlist here:

Want to find out more about Madison Butler and the incredible work she’s doing?! Why not follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter?

Register now for SocialTalent Live: DEI and Creating Safe Spaces at Work.

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