The gateway to psychological safety and inclusion

Do you feel safe to be your authentic self in your work? In your family life? In your local community?

Psychological safety is a big topic lately among my LinkedIn network, probably because so many of us feel unsafe in typical company cultures… especially if we feel different from the people around us. In this post I’ll unpack the link between Safety/Security, Belonging and Autonomy, plus the fourth “gateway” need that fuels all of these.

Safety may not be as universally important as we think

Safety is baked into Security, one of the 12 core human needs that have emerged in my research into human motivation. While it’s essential for everyone, its relative importance can vary greatly. The weight we apply to feeling safe and secure (versus another emotion like feeling free or expressive) is an indication of our “motivational DNA” — the unique mix of core needs that drive individual behavior.

Security is deeply linked to another need state: Belonging. Security-seekers find safety in belonging to something bigger than themselves. This is an ancient, tribal connection, rooted in a time when to be separated from the tribe meant certain death.

But let’s look at Autonomy, the polar opposite of Security. If Autonomy is one of our motivating needs, security doesn’t play much of a role in our decisions. Rather, we’re motivated by individuality, freedom and exploration. So far, none of my clients have included Security in their Core 4 needs. Psychological safety and security is a given for Rebels (gifted adults who fast thinkers, dot connectors and status quo busters); we notice it when it’s missing, but it doesn’t drive us. Instead, it bores us.

“Rebels notice when Security is missing, but it doesn’t drive us; instead, it bores us.”

Belonging, however, is in most of my clients’ Core 4… and Belonging means something different to Rebels. It’s essential, but we don’t find it in the herd; in fact, we can feel decidedly unsafe in the herd. We’re often the outliers, and we’d prefer to be outliers — moving to the beat of our own drum — rather than pretend to fit into a group who doesn’t understand us. The way we find real belonging is to find our tribe of other outliers who get the way our minds work.

Which brings me to the gateway need: Recognition.

Recognition is being seen — truly seen and valued — for who we are as individuals. Recognition lies at the intersection of Security, Autonomy and Belonging. I feel safe because I know you see me. I feel a sense of autonomy because you recognize my individuality and what makes me unique. And I feel connected, even if I’m different from you. You may not totally get me, but if you value what I bring to the table, that’s what counts.

Recognition brings the outliers in from the cold. If we don’t feel safe or connected, the root cause is likely feeling unseen and unappreciated for our unique gifts. Recognition and diversity belong together.

Our differences unite us

When people insist that we’re all basically the same, they’re negating what makes us… us. It’s why people of color get upset when white people say that they don’t see color: color is an integral part of individual and shared identity. Negating color — or any other defining characteristic, visible or hidden — is blanking out that human. Somehow we’ve all bought into the lie that we have to focus on the similarities — what we share as humans — at the expense of recognizing differences. Or perhaps we’re all trapped in a self-centric view of the world, assuming everyone else is just like us.

It’s only when we’ve done the work to plumb the depths of our own differences and embracing what we find there, can we truly see another human for their unique gifts and value… and on seeing that uniqueness, find both psychological safety and shared connection. For myself, I’ve noticed a huge difference in the measure of individuality I am able to perceive in others only after doing my own inner work. My clients say that they feel seen by me — and in seeing, I feel seen in return, for perhaps the first time in my life. Helping original minds be seen and valued for their unique gifts is now my life’s work.

“It’s only when we’ve done the work to plumb the depths of our own differences and embracing what we find there, can we truly see another human for their unique gifts and value… and on seeing that uniqueness, find both safety and shared connection.” 

Unity in and through differences is not only possible, it’s essential. We must hold the balance between the whole and the individual parts, not judging or evicting those quirky threads that seem like the wrong color up close, but appreciating the distinctiveness they bring to the whole cloth. For example, Rebels aren’t tied to the safe, traditional way of doing things; we move the world forward, which can be scary for security seekers who are driven to minimize risk. How can both coexist and work together?

Which brings me to cognitive diversity, the newest kid on the diversity block. Cognitive diversity is challenging because it’s below the water line. We can see whether women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ are represented in leadership. But how our brains are wired? Not so much.

And the kind of diversity I’m talking about here — emotional/motivational diversity, which can often be linked to our brain wiring — isn’t even a blip on people’s radars. And yet these two spectrums, cognitive and motivational, are the unseen engines that drive everything. Or they bring everything to a halt because they’re unrecognized…. they’re unseen.

Start with who

Creating harmony within teams and cultures begins with a deep, appreciative inquiry into individuality and diversity that lurks under the surface. Assume that others may be wired entirely differently from you, and follow curiosity into deeper questions and listening to what they want to be seen for.

Perhaps it’s also time for a deeper inquiry within yourself. What do you want to be seen for? In what ways do you feel unseen, unvalued and unappreciated? How can you bring more of this into your work, showing up as an authentic, whole person and leader?

My first principle in life or business is to Start with WHO (not why.) Who are you, really? Who are your colleagues, team members, partners, customers? What uniquely unites us, and how can we see and appreciate differences that create a tapestry of inclusion? I believe this is the heart of a more human future of work.

I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about this relationship between Recognition, Security, Autonomy and Belonging? How might this show up in your own culture?

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