Sincerely, Leaders of Color: The Key to Inclusive, Effective Teams Is Psychological Safety

To build teams where everyone feels represented and respected, create an environment where we all can bring our whole selves.

A quote from Alan Henry that says, "Fixing all of this is simpler than it seems: it just requires a little humanity ... something that, even in times like these, is in decent supply if we allow ourselves to show it."

(Background photo by Cary Bates on Unsplash)

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column. This column is proudly sponsored by the Executive Program and the Tow Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and our guest writers budget is sponsored by The American Press Institute.

Before I became a journalist, I was a project manager. A good one at that. I did great work, I liked my boss, and I was happy. Then, our department head hired a new director for project management and restructured the team so I worked for this new hire. I was upset, to say the least.

Part of it was that I don’t like change—I mean, who does—but the other part was that my manager at the time and I got along really well. I felt comfortable talking to him about the issues I had, how to navigate thorny internal politics, and he was receptive to my concerns. He even listened when I advocated for myself. I didn’t want to lose that sense of belonging and safety.

If you’ve ever had a job where your manager changed, you know what it’s like. You go from working with someone you understand to someone you know nothing about. If you’ve been the new manager in this scenario, you also know what it’s like to meet a person who now reports to you, look into their eyes, and see confusion, worry, or even outright anger. My new manager and I went on to get along even better than my old manager and I did, but it took time. And it took one more thing that both managers offered me in spades: psychological safety.

What Psychological Safety Is and Why It Matters

Psychological safety refers to your ability to discuss issues of personal and professional concern with your manager. If you’ve ever had a bad day at work, told a friend about it, and they said “why don’t you bring that up to your boss,” and you just knew, immediately, that wouldn’t be a productive conversation—or worse, you may wind up in more trouble for discussing your issue than having an issue in the first place, you know what it’s like to not feel safe at work.

For managers, psychological safety refers to your team’s ability to bring their issues, concerns, and personal lives to you. If you’re an authoritarian or aloof manager, it’s likely that your team has very low psychological safety, and works in your shadow trying to avoid your attention. If you’re an open, empathetic leader, your team likely has higher psychological safety, and they’re more driven, engaged, and passionate about their work.

I think it’s obvious at this point which style of management I prefer, and as Irving Washington put it, which style of management smart leaders should adopt. But being more empathetic as a manager does more than just foster psychological safety, it helps build better teams. It creates a work environment where employees and managers feel comfortable bringing their entire selves to work, and makes space for people to share their lived experiences with each other in a way that may inform their work.

This is especially important for workers and managers of color, and for people of any marginalized or underrepresented group. If you don’t have the psychological safety to tell your manager that the reason you never come to the bar with the team after work is that you’re a recovering alcoholic and would prefer not to be around alcohol, and if your manager doesn’t have the empathy to understand that and take that into consideration the next time they plan an outing (without making that fact a big deal), you’ll just go on missing those after-hours activities and the rest of the team will bond, while you’re on the outside looking in.

Now expand that to other reasons you may be marginalized. Perhaps your office is at the top of a long set of stairs (as one of mine was, at the top of a five-story walkup in New York City, with no elevator) and you’re disabled, or recovering from an injury. Suddenly coming into the office every day is perilous at best and impossible at worst. The company’s rooftop parties aren’t so appealing to you, and even if they are, as much as you’d love to get to know your coworkers and meet the people invited to those events, you’re locked out for reasons that aren’t your fault, or frankly, even your problem.

Let’s escalate. Maybe you have a colleague who won’t stop touching your hair, even after you make it clear that it’s inappropriate. Maybe you have a colleague who steals your ideas and passes them off as their own.

Psychological safety means that you know your manager will be understanding if you bring those issues to them. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have the ability to fix it, but they’re empathetic enough to know that having to manage your actual responsibilities on top of trying to fight to be included when you’re being either intentionally or unintentionally marginalized means that you’re effectively doing two jobs.

Imagine if none of that was a factor at all, and you could focus on doing your best work—the work you were hired and are qualified to do. Imagine if you, as a manager, could trust that everyone on your team is focused on what you need them to do, and not incidentals like the above examples. Wouldn’t that be nice?

How Leaders Can Build Psychological Safety

Put yourself in a manager’s shoes, if you’re not one already. You have a direct report who, every single day, packs up at 4:50 pm because they need to be out of the door and on the road at 5 pm sharp. No matter what’s happening, whether it’s a crisis or a slow day, they leave at the same time. They’re never late, they do great work, and they’re reliable, but the only thing that you notice is that they always make sure to leave at the same time every day.

In every managerial role I’ve ever had, managers interpret that kind of behavior as a negative. Without any additional context, the employee who leaves at the same time each day is characterized as “disengaged,” as though somehow their lack of desire (or ability) to stay late means that they’re not as “driven” or “ambitious” as their peers are. In management training seminars, we’re taught to find ways to convince the employee to stay later, to work harder, to ignore the fact that they’re already meeting or exceeding expectations, and find a way to convince them to deliver even more in pursuit of productivity or our corporate “mission.”

I hate that, and you should, too.

The simplest fix here, one that I’ve never seen repeated by any HR or management course, and that I certainly didn’t learn in my graduate studies in business administration, is to actually talk to that employee about why they’re leaving at the same time every day. Asking them, non-judgmentally, what’s going on, may reveal everything from pressing child-care duties or a firm pickup time for their kid from school to an after-work class or activity that they simply cannot be late for. It may lead you to suggest they come in earlier and leave earlier so they don’t have to beat traffic, or so they have more time in their afternoons.

But the assumption that the employee isn’t giving their all because they don’t go above and beyond their actual work requirements is an example of how managers are often trained to keep their employees anxious and afraid. In short, it’s a way to diminish their psychological safety.

Instead, I propose—and I discuss this in greater detail in my book, Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized—managers embrace a more empathetic, human-centered approach to managing. It’s equally possible that your employee simply wants to go home to be with their family, or would rather be anywhere but the office after a long day of work. We shouldn’t ridicule someone—or worse, overlook them for career advancement—for that while also pretending that’s not how we feel when we also clock out for the day.

We shouldn’t measure the performance of our teams based on how much extra work they do, when they’re already meeting our expectations (or worse, exceeding them, but just not in highly visible ways that make insecure managers feel good about themselves). We, and I mean all leaders, should encourage our teams to look out for each other and understand that we will look out for them. We should communicate to them that we do these things partially in service of our team’s goals and priorities, but also because we all have to work together for hours upon hours a day, every day.

Here are just a few things you can do:

  • Talk to your team, and encourage them to work on things that they’re good at that also give them the opportunity to shine.
  • Ask them what kinds of work they enjoy doing, and which work they’d rather not do.
  • Take the work that no one wants to do, and divide it up equitably across your team so it still gets done, but no one feels like they’re being taken advantage of.
  • Ask your team regularly how you can help them, not just by prioritizing their work, but by advancing their careers and helping them build the skills they’ll need when they eventually take your job or move on to another company to become your peer.

Fixing all of this is simpler than it seems: it just requires a little humanity from those of us with power and authority—something that, even in times like these, is in decent supply if we allow ourselves to show it.

Alan Henry
Senior Editor, WIRED

This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Kim. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.

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  • Alan Henry

    Alan Henry is a service journalist and editor who writes and commissions stories that help readers make better use of their technology and embrace a healthier relationship with it in their lives. He is currently senior editor at WIRED. He was previously the Smarter Living editor at The New York Times, and before that the editor in chief of the productivity and lifestyle blog, Lifehacker.


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