4 warning signs of a psychologically unsafe culture for women of color

In this eye-opening new book, Ruchika Tulshyan, an award-winning inclusion strategist, former business journalist, and CEO of Candour, which works with organizations to create diverse teams and inclusive cultures, argues that we don’t realize that inclusion takes awareness, intention, and regular practice.
March 1, 2022 7:00 PM UTC
Inclusion on Purpose book cover
Courtesy of MIT Press

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Psychological safety describes a work environment in which employees believe that they can speak up candidly with ideas, questions, and concerns without fear of retribution, according to Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmondson. Employees in psychologically safe environments can dissent, disagree, and even fail, but ultimately, they believe that they will still be respected and able to advance precisely because of their contributions by speaking up. Psychologically safe environments benefit both employees and the organization’s success as a whole.

For a company to be truly innovative, hiring smart and motivated people isn’t enough, says Edmondson. Without psychological safety, even knowledgeable and well-meaning people cannot contribute at the critical moments that they are needed, because they’re reluctant to be wrong, stand out, or upset their manager.

This seems like a no-brainer, and yet creating psychological safety for most employees, let alone women of color, continues to be a challenge. Research shows that we’re constantly trying to influence how others perceive us by managing the flow of information to them in social settings. At work, we’re often managing the risk that we will come off as less knowledgeable or problematic, versus speaking up at the right time and possibly being rewarded for it. Apply an intersectional lens and it becomes immediately apparent how much riskier it is for women of color, who have to navigate preconceived stereotypes while calculating the interpersonal risks when they speak up.

Ruchika Tulshyan, author, former business journalist, and CEO of consulting firm Candour Global.
Courtesy of MIT Press

When women of color experience psychological safety, they experience greater inclusion in their workplace. When their perspectives and feedback are welcome, everyone benefits.

What follows is an adapted excerpt from Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work, publishing on March 1.

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There are four problem areas that I see to improving psychological safety in healthy organizations that generally have a good work culture. I make this distinction because there are organizations that are run by bullies, and the only way to create psychological safety in them is to completely overhaul a toxic culture. But in other cases where managers are generally supportive and learning is welcomed, psychological safety is still far from a given. That’s why it’s so necessary to be inclusive on purpose. I’ve outlined below the four warning signs of a lack of a psychologically safe culture for women of color.

The lack of safe mechanisms to report bias

My assessment for a technology client found that their organization generally had a healthy work culture. But I also found that several women on a team were feeling harassed by a male team member. This male teammate would often enter a shared office room occupied by three women and spend hours trying to make conversation with them, sometimes making inappropriate or sexual comments. He also would stand too close to the women, making them feel uncomfortable. While one of the women had subtly commented on his behavior, there was no change. The women who responded to my survey said that his behavior likely stemmed from a lack of self-awareness rather than malicious intent.

Yet it’s always necessary for employers to take action when a manager is making other employees uncomfortable. The behavior had gotten so pervasively uncomfortable that some of the women preferred working from home, even if that meant negatively impacting their careers. Others were considering leaving the organization.

These cases are far too common. Acts of bias and harassment can have major consequences on the safety of, as well as sense of belonging for women, particularly women of color, who may have the most to lose by reporting this behavior. Also, these situations, while uncomfortable for the person facing it, can be difficult to report face-to-face. Our conclusions led the organization to immediately institute a confidential employee hotline to report harassment or bias. Having safe, confidential ways to report issues in the workplace is key to creating psychological safety.

Women of color are penalized for speaking up

A lack of psychological safety for women of color runs deep in the implicit and explicit messages they receive that it isn’t safe for them to speak up. Ironically, speaking up at critical moments can most positively impact the organization, but this is when employees often face the most barriers to be able to do so.

About half of all discrimination cases in the United States result in retaliation, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employees who complain suffer from career obstacles as well as physical and mental health challenges, compared with their peers who experienced discrimination but didn’t complain, so I can see why so many women of color hesitate to report facing bias. Women of color far too often find themselves labeled as troublemakers, demoted, or even fired for speaking up.

Leaders must intentionally create an environment that doesn’t penalize women of color for coming forward with concerns. Stating a commitment to psychological safety up front is half the battle. Putting it into practice to ensure that truth tellers are not penalized is the other half.

White comfort is prioritized while employees of color are penalized for speaking up

The lack of psychological safety to call out bias when women of color experience it can impact their willingness to contribute to key initiatives related directly to their jobs. As we see more backlash against women and people of color for expressing solidarity with racial justice movements, both in the office and over social media, those environments will continue to struggle with creating a psychologically safe workplace for women of color.

When leaders prioritize white comfort over confronting the reality of racism and bias that too many communities of color face, women of color will never feel safe and supported.

I urge leaders to ask themselves, “What mechanisms do we have to ensure that women of color are not penalized for highlighting issues of racism or injustice that impact their communities, even outside work? How do we handle complaints when white employees express discomfort with how women of color show up?”

Managers aren’t active bystanders or success partners to women of color

Women of color consistently lack the advocacy and allyship (solidarity of people from other groups that don’t face the same obstacles) that they require from their white peers. And without organization-wide common language around what constitutes bias and racism, many will continue to create workplace cultures that exclude women of color.

While women of color certainly end up leaving organizations because of toxic bias and exclusion, it’s also common for them to leave because of well-meaning managers who are unable to recognize, stop perpetuating, or call out everyday bias (not just overt racism) in themselves and others. A generally healthy work culture can still end up missing the mark on creating psychological safety for women of color without the language and tools to root out bias.

Some organizations that I’ve worked with now have workshops to coach managers to recognize what sexism and racism looks like at their organization, with proactive coaching on how to eliminate bias, be antiracist, and stand up to others who perpetuate it. As Lean In’s State of Black Women in Corporate America report argues, training should “emphasize tangible ways that employees can practice allyship, such as speaking out against discrimination and advocating for opportunities for Black women colleagues.”

Unfortunately, the bystander effect is disturbingly common when people witness incidents of bias or bullying. The bystander effect refers to when people in a group setting don’t disrupt or shut down toxic behaviors, frequently because they expect someone else will jump in or they don’t feel confident in their ability to effectively intervene. More managers must become active bystanders and use their in-group privilege to directly stop exclusionary behavior.

When managers operate as active bystanders to women of color, using their privilege to advocate for others, women of color are more likely to feel psychologically safe and included. Women of color specifically need white women to step up as what Minda Harts, author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, calls, “success partners.”

“It’s not enough for white women leaders to send the elevator back down for women of color.  Sometimes it will even require you to get back in the elevator and ride with them. That’s active commitment,” Hart tells me. 

She says that more work cultures must explicitly state that allyship and advocacy for women of color is valued, and reward those who practice it. Until then, many will feel psychologically unsupported, operating in an atmosphere where they can’t bring their authentic selves to work.

To be inclusive on purpose, regularly survey your employees and specifically ask questions around experiences of bias as well as how included and psychologically safe your employees feel. Here are a few key questions to ask yourself:

  1. What does psychological safety mean to you?
  2. When have you felt psychologically safe at work? When have you felt psychologically unsafe?
  3. Have you observed some or all of the four warning signs of a psychologically unsafe culture for women of color in your workplace?
  4. How are women of color generally treated when they speak up at your organization?
  5. What are the tools you can use in the short, medium, and long term to create greater psychological safety for your team?
  6. What is one thing that you could do to take action today?

Ruchika Tulshyan is an award-winning inclusion strategist, CEO of Candour and author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work (MIT Press).