Creating Psychologically Safe Workplaces

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello there. Thank you ever so much for tuning into this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I’m Toby Mildon, and today I’m joined by Rikia Birindelli-Fayne, and she works for an organization called Catalyst, which is an NGO organization, and today we’re going to be talking about the very important topic of psychological safety and the impact that that has on creating a more inclusive workplace. Let’s begin by you letting us know a bit more about your background and how you got into your line of work.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Thank you, Toby, for having me. So my name is Rikia Birindelli-Fayne, and I’m a Director for Catalyst in the MIA region. If I take a step back, before I came to Catalyst, I was working in the UK, and I was working more in community identity, so I was working at the University of East London as a more student experience officer, but looking at community identity, diversity and inclusion. And so diversity inclusion wasn’t my only focus, but it was a key focus in terms of being in London and looking at whether our students felt like they belonged, whether they could achieve in the society of London, and we were seeing there were some themes there. And then what happened was, I moved to Switzerland, and I would love to say I moved for work, but I actually moved for love, and as my husband is Swiss and I have a daughter here now, and the diversity and inclusion officer told me about Catalyst, and that’s how I came across Catalyst, and I started as a senior associate, and I’ve worked my way up as a director. Where I am now, working more with companies to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: I also sit on the Catalyst Awards Evaluation Committee, so we look at what does good progress look like? So our 2020 award winners featured, Unilever, Medtronic and Deloitte Australia. So that’s really been great, and then I do some speaking and facilitating on behalf of Catalyst on various topics such as unconscious bias, or emotional tax, sponsorship and mentoring, along those lines, and that’s a little bit about me.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, and that’s the reason why I got you on the show, because I saw you speaking at a conference about psychological safety, and that’s what we’re gonna be talking about today. So let’s begin with, I suppose, a simple question, which is, what is psychological safety?

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: This is a great question, and I think there’s different definitions for psychological safety. Well, I wouldn’t say different definitions exactly, but people may describe it slightly different. But at Catalyst, we always start with this kind of framework in terms of, 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. But psychological safety is usually not the first thing that comes to people’s mind, but it’s actually really, really important, because the impact of a negative work environment can really play havoc on people’s mental and physical well-being. So psychological safety is really when we’re talking about, and the questions I usually would ask people, “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 risk? Do you feel safe to bring up tough issues at work?” So these are the little things we usually are looking at when we’re talking about psychological safety.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: And what we hear often, we would love to hear yes, very often, but we know that’s not often the case. So at Catalyst, and I think when we’re working with executives and managers particularly, and we’re asked to come in and work with them, like maybe on workshops, and so and organizational culture comes up a lot, and that aspect of risk-taking comes up a lot. “Are you able to take risk in the organization, or do you fear making mistakes?” And this is where we really see it come up quite a bit. Catalyst, we did some research many years ago on psychological safety, and then in our recent report about a year ago or so, we actually did another study, a deep dive, should I say, into psychological safety, and we found that when we’re talking about psychological safety latitude, we feel that individuals feel they can make mistakes about being penalized, or they’re being viewed as a troublemaker, and they can really step outside the status quo with their thoughts and actions, and that’s really important, without they feeling there are gonna be any consequences.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: However, psychological safety risk-taking, which is the other aspect that we see is, “You feel a really strong sense of security when addressing tough issues, asking for help,” and asking for help, people like, “Oh, in risk-taking,” but this is really important in terms of creating comfortability with risk-taking, and ensuring that less errors are being made when we’re doing risk-taking, or that idea of un-constructive risk-taking is good at mitigating that. So that’s what we really see, and it really emphasizes confidence in being able to engage in constructive risk-taking behaviors instead of feeling undermined or shame. So that’s how Catalyst defines psychological safety.

Toby Mildon: That’s cool. And what do you notice in teams and the way that they function when there’s high psychological safety versus low psychological safety, and their performance?
Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: I think that’s a great question in terms of what we feel is, if you flip it the other side, so again, you see that people want to speak up in meetings. People feel they are able to give feedback and comfortable giving feedback. Feedback is a huge thing in terms of that comfort level, that there is… They feel trusted. We have like five hallmarks of inclusion, and I do think psychological safety is interlinked with that. So when we look at our five hallmarks, people feel like they can be their authentic self, they can bring their full self to work. They feel valued for the work they do, for everything they bring, then we have trusted. And I think we talk about, yes, you’re trusted to do your work, but we talk more along the lines of the feelings of being trusted and makes you feel that you can bring meaning for contributions. I think the other one with being trusted is that you feel that you have influence in decision-making. That’s where we see a strong influence in trust.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: And then the psychological safety, you can make mistakes and you’re not feeling penalized. And risk-taking. You can take constructive risk-taking behavior, and that’s encouraged. So that’s where we would like to see in teams. And I think this is not really highlighted in our new report, but it was highlighted in our older report that that trust with teams is very important, that you feel that your team member is cooperative with you, wants to work with you, instead of competitive with you, or sees you as a threat. So that’s I think is really important as well.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I think trust is hugely important. And yeah, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Stephen Covey’s book. Obviously, he’s famous for The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: 7 Habits.

Toby Mildon: But he wrote a book about trust and leadership in organizations, which is another really good book that he wrote.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Oh, right.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Yeah, I haven’t read that, but I’ll put it on my list, ’cause I like the 7 Habits. Yeah. [chuckle]

Toby Mildon: Yeah, it’s working out. So what are some of the inclusive leadership behaviors that promote psychological safety in the workplace? 

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Yeah, absolutely. So I would go back to the getting real about inclusive leadership report, because I guess what we should’ve highlighted it in the report is that we at Catalyst, we work with 800 supportive organizations across the world. They’re multi-national companies. And when we’re working with them, they also feature in our research report, so this is a global research study with companies across the world, and what we see in them is… What we see in our report is really telling us the picture, the big picture of what’s really happening and what’s really working. So with the six core behaviors, this is what we really see are really helpful in creating inclusion, and when managers and leaders are using these inclusive behaviors, that’s where we really see there’s a difference. But just to highlight, I do think when we’re looking at inclusive leadership behaviors, it’s not just managers and leaders, we need to start with each and one of us and take time to self-reflect and think about how inclusive we are with our teammates as well.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: But the six core behaviors, there are three that we call leading outward, and that that really highlights accountability, allyship, and ownership. And those are really what we say you need to be engaging with your team to help them feel empowered and flourished and being able to flourish. But when we are looking about leading inward, that’s a little bit different. That’s looking about courage and being able to self-reflect as a leader, or a manager, and that’s where we see curiosity, and humility, and the last one, courage is really, really huge. And so those are really where we see. And I can… If you want me, I can go in a little bit deeper, when we say accountability, like on the leading out, you hold team members responsible for their behavior, development and work processes. I guess a key theme I like to highlight is that we could say you have constructive two-way feedback, both, and you talk about feedback quite a bit, ’cause we see this is quite important in psychological safety.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: And then when we’re looking at ownership, you guide team members to solve their own problems and make their own decisions. So very complete opposite to micromanagement, and you encourage them to think about the big picture thinking, so you’re actually technically encouraging constructive risk-taking. And then the other one I mentioned was allyship, so you actively support people from under-represented groups, so you’re interrupting bias behaviors and you’re encouraging others to do the same, I think is one example here, because if you see something, and if you see behavior that’s not… You think is inclusive, you have to be able to act. You have to be able to interrupt that.

Toby Mildon: Sure.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: And then when we are looking about leading inward, it’s curiosity. You proactively seek to understand different points of views. So we hear this a lot. That’s really important. And then I would also add humility. You take ownership for mistakes and learn from missteps. And this bit I think is really important because I was on a panel discussion on psychological safety, and there was three of us speaking, and the humility came up quite a lot. So humility was saying, you have to look inwards in that way, and you need to be seeking feedback to encourage team members to tell you the truth about yourself. But being vulnerable, being able to admit shortcomings, or failures is really important to really help psychological safety by… So being able to role model and share stories and learnings about your mistakes or your failures really can actually help create that. We don’t need to be perfect here. And encourage you act in accordance with your principles, even when it involves personal risk-taking, or it feels uncomfortable. So those are our six core behaviors. Yeah.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I think those hallmarks of inclusive leadership are really good, because when I work with my clients, for instance, I always stress the point that it’s the senior leaders of the business that need to be walking the talk. They just can’t pay lip service to diversity and inclusion, and they need to be demonstrating inclusive leadership traits, because they set the tone for the whole organization.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Absolutely.

Toby Mildon: And then it kind of trickles down from there. Have you done any work around microaggressions in the work of psychological safety? 

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: I hope this was an interesting question to tie together. We at Catalyst we talk about microaggressions. We link it very much with unconscious bias, and we talk about it in our emotional tax and emotional taxes, that additional burden of feeling different to your peers due to gender and race or ethnicity. So that’s where we really see microaggressions coming up a bit. In terms of psychological safety, I think the impact of microaggressions is really where it can hit on the psychological level, so we see like that the long-term impact of microaggressions, and I think what’s interesting about microaggressions is, you might have heard it’s death by a thousand cuts quite often that saying, and if you’re hearing that all the time, what is the impact? And so we’ve seen individuals, employees feel less engaged, they feel othered like they’re on the outside. It impacts this feeling of sense of self-worth. We see things along those lines, but I also like to highlight with microaggressions.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Microaggressions are very common in the workplace and they can happen, but sometimes I think microaggressions are the word 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. But sorry to come back where I wanted to say psychological safety where I really see it is, we talk about psychological safety in terms of a lot of risk and making mistakes, but also are you safe to really speak up or if you think your colleague is going to say something to you that’s gonna make you feel uncomfortable? No, not really. Or you’re expecting that and we talk a lot about covering with microaggressions as well, so that’s where we are really saying we see that interlink. You cover more in your workplace and if you’re covering then you don’t feel like you can be yourself. You watch what you’re saying. You might be more cautious about the mistakes and probably you’re not even engage in in risk-taking behavior at all.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: So I do think it’s all interlinked and where we see where you can mitigate that is we go back to inclusive leadership behaviors such as curiosity. Why don’t you ask questions instead of assuming things? Because that’s half of what microaggressions are, they’re unconscious kind of assuming things about people. So stop yourself in your tracks and think, “Hey can I be more curious?” And taking more humility is another one that comes up too, like actually, let me think about my own behaviors and how that might impact others. So we often say at Catalyst, assume positive intent, but on your own impact, is what we often say when we’re talking about microaggressions because the impact that you’re having on others is just as important.

Toby Mildon: So you mentioned covering. So the person listening to us today might not have heard of this concept. Can you just briefly explain what covering is? 

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Okay. So covering, in a short-term covering is where you cover aspects of your identity because you may not feel safe or you are protecting yourself against bias, so it’s that protecting yourself against bias that will possibly happen, probably happen. So you cover in advance, so when we talk about covering, I use a personal example often, so I experienced you could say covering can take different forms. It could be physical, it could be behavior, it could be maybe you don’t speak up on the issue. So I always use examples in terms of if gender-related if you’re the only woman may be in the meeting and the gender conversation comes up, you might not speak up about it, you don’t wanna 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, you play down what you feel about that.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: But when I think of physical… So I’m Black British, and I often wear my hair up, and the reason why is, ’cause I actually experienced something in a work environment where I want my head down and people threw something into my hair and they thought it was a joke that it stayed in my hair and not understanding what afro hair is really about, and I felt very uncomfortable ’cause 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, and of course, if you’re the only person on the team that is different which I was of being Black British you’re more aware of that. So you’re protecting yourself against forever microaggressions in advance.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. I agree with you and I think I’ve done my fair share of covering up as well. So I’m a wheelchair user and it’s really about downplaying or hiding certain aspects of yourself, so it’s like you cannot see that I’m in a wheelchair, ’cause I’m in an electric wheelchair that’s very heavy and bulky, but you know, what I might do is come in downplay, I might feel really uncertain about any impact of my disability in the workplace, so I might be more courteous to people than I really want to be, for instance, ’cause I don’t want to be in the troublemaker.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: Yeah. It’s an interesting psychological response.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Yes, it is. Yeah.

Toby Mildon: Can you share with me some sort of practical things that organizations can do to try and increase allyship and also active bystanders within an organization? 

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Yeah. I think this has really come up quite a lot at the moment, due to COVID and the Black Lives Matter, I also should say what happened to George Floyd in the US, we hear a lot more about allyship and what is allyship in terms of… It’s not just showing support. We see as allyship is something of a journey that you don’t have a point of destination, you don’t just achieve it, it is something you have to spend your life working on. And with that, we say three things you have to do is connect, educate, and act. Sometimes I say CEA as a easy way to remember it. And so connect for us is that you connect to the group that you are, or a cause that you’re saying you’re supporting as a 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,” that you actually see that the oppression for that group is also oppression for you, and it’s gonna be a mutual beneficial purpose.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: So the allyship is viewing it as a, “It benefits me too by supporting this group, because we wanna see that this change is happening, that bias is hurting everyone.” And I think even if you think about it in terms of a work environment, if you have a 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. And there, so that’s connection is there. And education is key. You have to educate yourself, but not over-reliance of 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. And then last but not least, you have to act. It’s not okay to say, “Oh I’m connected. I educate myself on this,” but you’re not actually doing anything. So you have to really be a ally, you have to.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: And we talk about bystander, you know, bystander, you have to act, you have to interrupt bias behaviors, you have to speak up, maybe, on behalf of others if you feel their voices are not being heard here. So we always say, take time to reflect. I think when you’re also thinking of acting like, “How much time am I taking up in meetings? Who’s not being heard?” The other things we would say, who you’re leaving behind as, “Oh, I haven’t never one,” I always say, but I forget. Who’re you leaving behind? And how much do you know about that said group anyway? What you think you know, do you really know? Do you really understand experiences of that group? So that’s where we see allyship as being really important.

Toby Mildon: Okay. Brilliant. So in our conversation today, you’ve mentioned a couple of reports that Catalyst have written. What are those reports? And how do we get our hands on them? 

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Yeah. So Catalyst is a research advisory membership organization. And as I mentioned, we have over 800 supportive organization who’ve registered to us. But our reports are usually open to the public because we are a global NGO, but our tools and practices and some infographics are only for our supporters only, as understandable. So the report I mentioned was getting view about inclusive leadership. And they are quite in-depth reports. They’re a good read, so you can access that. Emotional Tax is more, like I said, related to gender, race, and ethnicity, and we talk more about that intersectionality experience in the Emotional Tax, and you’re able to access those. We have several reports on that. Check out our website. It’s You should be able to access most of our research reports, which we do in different topics. We talk about sponsorship, mentoring. Well, we talk more about sponsorship as we see there’s more benefit in sponsoring others, and LGBTQ+. We have some resources on that as well. But really and truly, Catalyst mission is accelerating the progress of women through workplace inclusion. So a How, is how we really see it in the diversity and inclusion space. But we do have a lot of data on gender, gender partnerships, or how to engage men, and how to really accelerate the progression of women in the organization.

Toby Mildon: Excellent. Okay. Well, thank you, Rikia, for joining me today. It’s been really great talking to you. And thank you for listening in to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I hope you enjoyed our conversation. Please do go and check out the reports that Rikia mentioned on the Catalyst website. Until then, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the Inclusive Growth Show.

Rikia Birindelli-Fayne: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. Thanks.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at

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