The promise of staffing a team with diverse members is that the different perspectives, ideas, and opinions will result in greater performance. 

The reality is that diverse teams often underperform because people from dissimilar backgrounds often clash. 

Ask an attuned executive how diversity affects teams’ performance and the vast majority are convinced that more diverse teams will outperform less diverse teams – particularly when the project involves innovation.  

Their argument is familiar: The different perspectives, ideas, and opinions in diverse teams are essential to achieving breakthrough performance in competitive environments.

In practice, however, diverse teams often underperform relative to homogenous teams. Why? It’s simple. People with similar backgrounds share norms and assumptions about how to behave, how to set priorities, and at what pace to do the work. 

When team members come from different backgrounds, these taken-for-granted habits frequently clash; even what counts as “evidence” to support an opinion varies across fields. 

The result is misunderstanding and frustration. Indeed, past research suggests that, on average, demographic diversity has a negative effect on teams’ outcomes.

Research suggests that team psychological safety — a shared belief that team members will not be rejected or embarrassed for speaking up with their ideas, questions, or concerns — may hold the key to unlocking the benefits of diversity.

What is Psychological Safety at Work?

When employees feel free to ask questions, share their opinions and ideas, and acknowledge mistakes or concerns without fear of negative consequences, they are enjoying a psychologically safe workplace. Speaking up in such an environment feels not only safe, but also valued and necessary for the company to thrive.

Examples include:

  • An employee feels free to speak up to their manager about a new procedure they are unsure of.
  • When mistakes are made, employees are not made to feel incompetent and may even be asked, “What did you learn?” to foster growth and development.
  • Employees feel free to ask their team members for help.

In contrast, a well-known example of what a psychologically unsafe workplace looks like can be found within the 2016 Wells Fargo account fraud scandal, in which employees falling short of unrealistic sales goals opened millions of fake accounts rather than speak up to their managers about the goals not being achievable. 

The practice was so widespread that it could not be attributed to a few employees but had to be a pervasive culture created by management. The company was fined $180 million as a result of the illegal activity, and its reputation still suffers today.

Psychological safety at work promotes better engagement and allows employees to bring their full and true selves to work. It does not, however, provide an escape from accountability or performance expectations. The healthiest organizations link employee health and high performance together to get the best from their workforce.

Some leaders may misunderstand the concept, envisioning coddling and hand-holding just to get average performance from employees. The reality is that psychological safety is becoming as important as any Occupational Safety and Health Administration-defined protection that keeps employees not only safe but also free to focus on their work and not worry about protecting themselves while working.

Research consistently shows that White men feel safer to express their ideas and concerns at work than women and people of color do. 

A psychologically safe workplace can encourage everyone in the workplace to engage, allowing those whose life experiences have taught them that being silent is safer to shed those fears and participate meaningfully at work.

Sources: Harvard Business Review and the Society of Human Relations Managers