Creating Psychologically Safe Workplaces

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne works for an organisation called Catalyst, which is an NGO that works with some of the world’s leading companies. Catalyst’s mission is to create ‘workplaces that work for women’. The focus of my conversation with Rikia was the important topic of psychological safety and its impact in building more inclusive workplaces. To start with, Rikia told me about her background and how she got into her line of work.

‘I’m currently a Director for Catalyst in the EMEA region. Before I came to Catalyst, I was working in the UK at the University of East London as a student experience officer, looking at community identity, diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion was a key focus looking at whether our students felt like they belonged and if they could achieve in the society of London. I then moved to Switzerland. I would love to say I moved for work, but I actually moved for love as my husband is Swiss and we have a daughter here.

I started as a senior associate at Catalyst and I’ve worked my way up to Director, working with companies to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces. I also sit on the Catalyst Awards Evaluation Committee, so we look at what does good progress look like? Our 2020 award winners featured Unilever, Medtronic and Deloitte Australia. I also do some speaking and facilitating on behalf of Catalyst on various topics such as unconscious bias, or emotional tax, sponsorship and mentoring.’

Psychological Safety in the Workplace

I saw Rikia speaking at a conference about psychological safety which inspired me to invite her onto the show so we could talk about the topic a bit more. Rikia says that different people might describe psychological safety slightly differently, so I asked her to explain what it means at Catalyst.

‘We always start with a framework. When you think of psychological safety, or when you think of safety in the workplace, the things that come to mind often as physical safety, or functional safety. Psychological safety is not usually the first thing that comes to people’s mind, but it’s actually important because the impact of a negative work environment can play havoc on people’s mental and physical wellbeing. To understand levels of psychological safety, I ask people questions like “Do you feel safe to speak up at work? Do you feel safe to give your ideas, give your opinions? Do you feel safe to take risks? Do you feel safe to bring up tough issues at work?” These are the little things we look at when we’re talking about psychological safety.

What we would love to hear is yes, but that’s not often the case. When we come in from Catalyst to work with executives and managers particularly, maybe on workshops, organisational culture and risk-taking comes up a lot. We see it come up quite a lot in that people might not feel able to take risks in the organisation and fear making mistakes. 

Catalyst did some research many years ago on psychological safety. Then in our recent report about a year ago or so, we actually did another deep dive study.  We found that when we’re talking about psychological safety latitude, it’s to what extent individuals feel they can make mistakes without being penalised. Or if they can step outside the status quo with their thoughts and actions without being viewed as a troublemaker without feeling there are going to be any negative consequences.

Where there is psychological safety for risk-taking people feel a strong sense of security when addressing tough issues and asking for help. This is so important for building confidence in being able to engage in constructive risk-taking behaviours instead of feeling undermined or shamed. So that’s how Catalyst defines psychological safety.’

Hallmarks of Inclusion

I asked Rikia what she has noticed in the way that teams function when there’s high psychological safety versus low psychological safety and respective team performance? 

‘We have five hallmarks of inclusion and I think psychological safety is interlinked with those. These five hallmarks are when people feel like they can be their authentic self and they can bring their full self to work. They feel valued for the work they do, for everything they bring. People are trusted to do the work, but we talk more along the lines of the feelings of being trusted which makes people feel that they make meaningful contributions and can have influence on decision-making. Feedback is a huge part of feeling trusted. Do people want to speak up in meetings? Do people feel they are able to give feedback and are they comfortable giving feedback? 

There is psychological safety to make mistakes and not fear feeling penalised. And constructive risk-taking behaviour that’s encouraged. That’s what we would like to see in teams. This is not one of the main themes in our new report, but it was highlighted in our older report that trust within teams is very important. Do people feel that team members cooperate with you and want to work with you, instead of being competitive, or seeing you as a threat? I think that is important as well.’

Core Behaviours

At the end of 2019 Catalyst published the global research study ‘Getting Real About Inclusive Leadership’. The report was based on Catalyst’s research with 800 supportive multi-national organisations around the world. Rikia and I discussed the types of inclusive leadership behaviours highlighted in the report that promote psychological safety in the workplace.

‘What we see in our report is the big picture, so what’s happening and what’s working. There are six core behaviours that we see as helpful in creating inclusion. When managers and leaders use these inclusive behaviours, that’s where we see there’s a difference. I do think when we’re looking at inclusive leadership behaviours, it’s not just managers and leaders here. We do need to start with each and every one of us, take time to self-reflect and think about how inclusive we are with our teammates as well.

Of the six core behaviours, there are three that we call leading outward. These highlight accountability, allyship, and ownership. Those behaviours are what we say you need to be engaging within your team to help them feel empowered and flourishing. Take accountability, where you hold team members responsible for their behaviour, development and work processes. I guess a key theme I like to highlight is that constructive two-way feedback because it’s important in psychological safety.
With ownership, it’s guiding team members to solve their own problems and make their own decisions. Completely opposite to micromanagement. You encourage them to think about the big picture thinking, so you’re actually encouraging constructive risk-taking.  Allyship is how you actively support people from under-represented groups, interrupting biased behaviours and encouraging others to do the same. One example here is if you see a behaviour that’s not inclusive, you have to be able to act. You have to be able to interrupt that.

The behaviours for leading inward are a little bit different – curiosity, humility and courage which are about being able to self-reflect as a leader or a manager.  Courage is a huge element in leading inward. With curiosity, you proactively seek to understand different points of views. Humility means you take ownership of mistakes and learn from missteps. 

I was on a panel discussion about psychological safety and humility came up quite a lot. To look inwards in that way you need to be seeking feedback and encourage team members to tell you the truth about yourself. But making yourself vulnerable, being able to admit shortcomings, or failures is important to help psychological safety because it means you can role model and share stories and learnings about your mistakes or your failures which actually help create that for others. We don’t need to be perfect here. Our core behaviours mean you can act in accordance with your principles, even when it involves personal risk-taking, or it feels uncomfortable.’

Microaggressions and Psychological Safety

The Catalyst hallmarks of inclusive leadership resonate with me. When I work with my clients, I always stress the point that it’s the senior leaders of the business that need to be walking the talk. They mustn’t just pay lip service to diversity and inclusion. They need to be demonstrating inclusive leadership traits because they set the tone for the whole organisation. I asked Rikia if Catalyst has done any work on microaggressions within the work of psychological safety?

‘At Catalyst, we talk about microaggressions. We link it with unconscious bias, and we talk about it in our emotional tax, that additional burden of feeling different to your peers due to gender and race or ethnicity. In terms of psychological safety, I think the impact of microaggressions is where it can hit on the psychological level and the long-term impact of microaggressions on people. What’s interesting about microaggressions is people say it’s death by a thousand cuts. The impact we’ve seen is that employees feel less engaged, they feel othered like they’re on the outside. It impacts the sense of self-worth.

Microaggressions are very common in the workplace. Sometimes I think microaggression is a term used for some incidents that are not microaggressions. They are actually isolated incidents of just treating people poorly, and we need to be able to distinguish the difference between those as well. Where I see psychological safety is in terms of risk and making mistakes and feeling safe to speak up or is there the fear that a colleague is going to say something that’s going to make you feel uncomfortable?  Do you have to watch what you’re saying? If so, you might be more cautious about making any mistakes and probably you’re not even going to engage in any risk-taking behaviour at all.

I do think it’s interlinked.  We can mitigate that if we go back to inclusive leadership behaviours such as curiosity. Why don’t you ask questions instead of assuming things? Because that’s half of what microaggressions are, they’re often linked to unconsciously assuming things about people. Stop yourself in your tracks and think, “Hey can I be more curious here?”

More humility is another one that comes up too. We often say at Catalyst, assume positive intent, but keep an eye on your own impact. Microaggressions are so-called because that impact they have on others even unintentionally is just as important.


We talk about covering.  Short-term covering is where you cover aspects of your identity because you may not feel safe or you are protecting yourself against the bias of others. It’s that protecting yourself against biased behaviour that has happened and will probably happen again. So people cover in advance and that could be physical, it could be behaviour, or it could be that you don’t speak up on the issue. I use a gender-related example. What if you’re the only woman in a meeting and the gender conversation comes up? You might not speak up about it because you don’t want to be the token woman speaking up on gender. You fear the comments that might be coming back at you. So you cover, you play down your gender and what you feel about that.

With physical covering, I’m Black British, and I often wear my hair up. The reason why is because I actually experienced something in a work environment where I wore my head down, and people threw something into my hair. They thought it was a joke that the object stayed in my hair. They had no understanding what afro hair is really about. I felt very uncomfortable because my hair became the focus. So what do I do? I cover. I tie my hair up because I want the focus to be on me, my abilities than what my hair is about. If you’re the only person on the team that is different which I was being Black British you’re more aware of that. So you’re protecting yourself against these microaggressions in advance.’

Again this conversation about covering resonated with me.  I think I’ve done my fair share of that as well as a wheelchair user where it’s been about downplaying or hiding certain aspects of yourself. People can’t fail to see that I’m in a wheelchair because my electric wheelchair is heavy and bulky. Something I might do when I am uncertain about any impact of my disability in the workplace is that I might be more courteous to people because I don’t want to be seen as the troublemaker. So that’s an interesting psychological response to my mind.

Moving from Bystanders to Allyship

I asked Rikia to share some practical things that people can do to try and increase allyship and also active bystanders within their organisations.

‘This has come up a lot at the moment, due to COVID and the Black Lives Matter. What happened to George Floyd in the US meant we now hear a lot more about allyship and what it means. It’s not just showing support, we see allyship as a journey where there isn’t a single point of destination. You don’t just achieve it, it is something you have to spend your life working on. We say there are three things you have to do which is to connect, educate, and act.

Sometimes I say CEA as an easy way to remember it. Connect to the group that you are or a cause that you’re supporting as allyship. So if it’s Black Lives Matter or the community of Black people, then you’re showing support. By showing support, you’re not just saying, “I support that group.” It’s that you actually see that the oppression for that group is also oppression for you, and allyship is going to be for a mutually beneficial purpose.

Allyship is saying “It benefits me too by supporting this group because we want to see this change is happening because that bias is hurting everyone.” Even if you think about it in terms of a work environment, if you have an un-inclusive environment, that hurts everyone. So if you’re supporting under-represented groups, or noticing how much they’re being hurt, this is really important as well, to show support. 

Education is key. You have to educate yourself, but not having an over-reliance on educating yourself from said group. And I think that’s come up quite a bit during this time. Do go and do your own reading and find your own understanding, instead of asking a particular group to educate you on a particular topic. But of course, you have to engage with that group as well. 

Then last but not least, you have to act. It’s not okay to say, “Oh I’m connected. I am educating myself on this,” but you’re not actually doing anything. To really be an ally, you have to.

We talk about bystanders. To be an ally and not a bystander, you have to act. You have to interrupt biased behaviours. You have      to speak up, on behalf of others if you feel their voices are not being heard. We always say, take time to reflect. I think when you’re also thinking of acting reflect on, “How much time am I taking up in meetings? Who’s not being heard? Who’re we leaving behind?”

I’d also ask, how much do you know about that said group anyway? What you think you know, do you really know? Do you actually understand the lived experiences of that group? So that’s where we see allyship as being critically important.’

Catalyst’s mission is to accelerate the progress of women through workplace inclusion. To read the reports mentioned and others, visit their website at

Creating Psychologically Safe Workplaces - Mildon