On Psychological Safety and Allyship



How do you know when a leader doesn’t understand psychological safety (Edmondson)? When you explain that it’s lacking and they seem confused and respond that they’re going to ask around for themselves. How should you be able to tell for yourself? By increasing your awareness of how others are behaving.


Learning what to look for . . .

When team members don’t feel safe, they’re probably not going to tell you. But they’ll show you, I promise. They’ll use their paychecks and any extra time they have (and some of the time they use might not be extra and might be on your dime) to build their own business or look for a new job. They’re living what not to do as a leader, and they are convinced they would create a different atmosphere. Or at least that they need a different atmosphere. They don’t want to burn bridges, so they’re not going to tell you how they feel at their exit interview.


People don't leave jobs, they leave . . .

Some will look out only for themselves at work because you don’t have their back, so they don’t have the backs of others. The modeling simply isn’t there. They will go through their workdays in at least a mild state of anxiety, silent because they don’t feel safe, and they won’t necessarily be able to articulate that. All they know is that they want out. Or should I say away . . . from you. Their work is likely to suffer.


They’re not snowflakes and they don’t care about what you had to put up with back in the day if you happen to be a generation or two older. There was a hilariously true tweet that made the rounds a while back and even has its own reddit thread: If you suffered in life and want other people to suffer as you did because you “turned out fine,” you did not in fact turn out fine.


Identifying Allies

One thing people who don’t feel safe or who feel silenced will do at work is find someone to talk to. And that someone just might be in the office next to yours. We know who our allies are, because people who are allies behave accordingly. And by that, I’m not talking about being friendly in the office. Anyone can wear that mask. Don’t interpret pleasantries as anything other than people trying to be civil regardless of their environment, although if civility is gone you probably have even bigger problems.


If your team is holding back with their ideas, their spark and innovation are gone, and they’re not being honest with you about why, it’s because you’re not their ally. They fear repercussions, or at the very least their experience tells them that they shouldn’t speak up because they won’t be supported. Or their ideas will resurface in a few months as your ideas.


Three Habits of Allies

Safe workplaces are full of allies, and good leaders have the humility necessary to learn how to be allies and then model that behavior. They are curious about the experiences of others and they know that the best ideas, conversations, and performances come from people who are made to feel that whoever they are is not just okay, but a vital, valued, and warmly welcomed part of the team.

1. They listen.

Allies listen. They know what it feels like in their bodies when they are listening deeply, and they understand how powerful the experience can be for both parties. When you’re done talking, they don’t say: “I’m going to take what you said very seriously.” That wouldn’t even occur to them. Instead, they’re grateful and humbled that you felt free to speak. What they will do is act. They will show you that they understand your position and they will actively find a way to improve it. Allies ask questions and don’t assume they know your experience. They’re curious and genuinely want to learn. They stand up for those who are marginalized, even if that makes them unpopular or jeopardizes their status. They often speak up when they see someone being treated unfairly or when they notice that an asymmetry in power has affected how team members show up, however . . .


2. They give credit rather than take it.

Allies not the stars of the show. They use their position—their privilege—to amplify the voices of others. They give credit where it’s due, and they reach out to the underrepresented and the silent. They want others to be heard and included, and they aren’t looking for acknowledgment for that.


3. They want to learn.

Allies understand that they don’t always know best. When they notice that a power differential is being used to quash ideas or voices, they don’t necessarily speak up on the spot and champion the other person. Sometimes it’s better to go to the person to name what they saw and listen to what they have to say about their experience. Allies don’t assume the Defender-of-The-Marginalized position; they ask how they can be of service, including asking if it’s okay to speak on the other’s behalf or otherwise in support of them.


Safe workplaces are full of allies, and good leaders have the humility necessary to learn how to be allies and then model that behavior. They are curious about the experiences of others and they know that the best ideas, conversations, and performances come from people who are made to feel that whoever they are is not just okay, but a vital, valued, and warmly welcomed.



Amy Edmondson's 1999 paper, if you're interested in where it all began, is here.

Guide to Allyship is a wonderful resource for all things allyship.

© 2020 by Mary Martin, Ph.D. 

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Jupiter, FL