It’s one thing to talk about bringing our authentic selves to work; it’s quite another to actually do so, especially in the face of all the potential triggers an average workday holds. Being interrupted, not having one’s contribution valued, not being asked to come to a meeting — these and other common (and often unintentional) slights can add up to a lack of psychological safety.
“Being neglected is the most challenging experience for the human neurology,” explains Rajkumary Neogy, a consultant whose Disruptive Diversity framework helps team members rewire their nervous systems to create more cohesion and trust. “The brain codes exclusion literally as if you’re getting kicked in the shin. It’s unsafe to bring the whole self to work when one is anticipating going into a meeting and being shut down.”
Luckily, creating a team culture that fosters inclusion via psychological safety is relatively simple: it just takes practice, intention, and attention. “The way the brain changes is via the relationships we keep or foster, and the language we use,” Neogy says. “Language becomes the architect of our reality. How we speak — both verbally and non-verbally — and how we invite others into connection becomes absolutely critical in how we design inclusive culture.”
Though the exact practices will be different for every company and every team, Neogy advises creating pre-discussed “housekeeping rules,” based on shared team values, that can serve as guardrails for fostering inclusive culture. Start by getting clear on what you’d like as a team, how you’d like to have those commitments reinforced, and how to keep them sustained. “It’s never about the ability to become a therapist and solve people’s problems,” s/he says. “It’s about creating capaciousness in order to create trust and to have a well of met needs: the needs to be seen, respected, valued, welcomed.”
Here are more of Neogy’s ideas for rules and practices your team can adopt.
1. Designate an advocate to make sure all voices are heard in every meeting.
Research from Google’s Artistotle Project has found that conversational turn-taking is one of the key practices for creating psychological safety in a group. In order to ensures this happens in every meeting, literally assign someone to be the ambassador or advocate responsible for inviting voices into the circle. “It’s having someone in the room noticing there’s a voice not speaking out,” Neogy explains. “That advocate or ambassador is the one who says, ‘We haven’t heard from the person in Singapore. Would you like to comment on that?’” Rotate who on the team is playing this role.
“It’s so simple,” Neogy says, “but I was in a meeting not a week ago and forgot that someone was there via dial in. We talked for 35 minutes, and then she said something, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Kelly!’ It’s a good reminder to practice what I preach.”
2. Agree on how to bring up non-verbal cues.
The second key factor the Google study found for creating psychological safety is high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — skill at intuiting how others feel based on nonverbal cues. In order to facilitate paying attention to the group’s non-verbal communication, discuss and establish norms among the team about how to bring questions and concerns up as they arise.
“I was in a client meeting two days ago,” Neogy says, “and the leader rolled her eyes and sighed. Being a coach, I called it out: ‘I’m wondering what that’s about?’ On your team, have an agreement and a commitment to the housekeeping rules of how to call out so the person doesn’t feel shamed and pointed at, and rather invited in.” With the proper context, you should be able to turn to someone and say, “I just noticed that you sighed. What’s going on for you? Are you feeling frustrated?”
Neogy offers another example, of a client whose boss gave him feedback he was sometimes too aggressive and intimidating in meetings. He asked his boss to text him to back off next time it happened. A few weeks later, he was giving very focused commentary, his boss texted him, and he backed off instantaneously. “He really appreciated that reminder,” Neogy says. “But that has to be an agreement between two people. It can’t be, ‘Hey, back off,’ without the agreement.”
3. Commit to checking assumptions instead of reacting to potentially triggering stimuli.
“On teams, the number one issue I see is communication,” Neogy says. “People don’t take the time to ask questions about what was just said. They make an assumption, and then they walk away. That assumption is 99 percent of the time incorrect.” Instead, pause and check your assumptions — either in an interaction you’re part of, or one you’re witnessing as an observer. As a team, make a committment to take the time to ask questions about what was just said. “Everyone has an absolute opportunity to create inclusivity in the moment by simply getting curious,” Neogy says.
Neogy offers a story to illustrate this advice: “I was at a client’s site where a woman I’d been coaching brought me in to talk to her team, including the CEO, about trust. About 20 minutes into the meeting, I jumped up started whiteboarding. As I’m doing so, she yells out, ‘Wow, your handwriting is really shitty.’ I could have gotten defensive. I could have said, ‘My handwriting is fine,’ and many other things. But I saw it as an opportunity. So I turned around and faced her and said, ‘Awesome. Can you say more about what’s going on for you?’ She thought about it, and replied, ‘It’s really important to me that people understand what you’re saying. I brought you in here and I find you have a lot of value. I want people to understand that.’ That was a very different idea to respond to.”
Bonus tip: Conscious Complaining
Here’s an extra practice that Neogy uses to keep relationships healthy: requesting 5-10 minutes of conscious complaining. “We literally put a timer on it,” s/he says. Ask someone to just listen attentively for a little while — not try to fix anything or create resolution, but to give you a space to vent. “It’s like a pressure valve that gets to release your angst,” Neogy says. “You get in a space to be helped. That’s critical. It actually directly impacts the right hemisphere and calms the nervous system down.”