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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What’s my purpose?

I obsessed about this idea of purpose for years, writing endlessly in my journals more questions than answers: Why am I here? What should I be doing with my life? Is there some grand plan that I need to figure out? Am I a total slacker if I’m not saving rainforests or fixing the world’s ills or leading a revolution?

The question of purpose is often linked to the question of career and vocation. It’s a question that starts with what. “What should I be doing that is in line with my purpose?” Or maybe it’s a why that turns into a what: “Why am I here so that I know what to do?”

We desperately want to know what to do. We want answers. Certainty. The ability to make decisions and plans and not wake up in 10 years realizing that the boat sailed long ago on what we were “supposed” to be doing, and now it’s all too late. Cue the sad music…

I’d bought into this idea of purpose so completely that even six months ago my goal was to help my coaching clients find their purpose. But this coronavirus shutdown gifted me with a stillness in which I could strip away many assumptions that I took for granted.

Recently my pen scribbled the words “love more” in my journal. As in, that’s the answer to the meaning of life. That’s our purpose… why we’re here. The small-ego part of me rebelled a bit: No way! I don’t want that to be the answer. It’s too simple, too trite, too feel-goody hearts and flowers… too Instagram. Not only that, it’s not SPECIAL. It’s not a unique purpose just for me, that only I can fill. It’s for everyone! Hogwash.

“Did Morpheus tell you why you’re here? You’re supposed to save the world. Jesus… what a mind job. What do you say to something like that?”

Cypher to Neo, the Matrix

Yes, it’s all one big mind job… this expectation that lurks in the back of our minds that whispers like a little devil, “you should be doing more. Something better.” That whisper that suggests that my life isn’t quite meaningful enough. That there’s something out there that I haven’t found yet that will make it all worthwhile. And when I find it, life will magically transform into a garden of awesomeness. And I’ll feel special.

Love more.

The Jen who operated from a self-inflicted love deficiency, who looked for love out there as something elusive or conditional… she would have no idea what to do with this. She would have thought love was saved for a handful of special people… something to do — a verb, to give or receive — not to be: a container filled with light.

Love is not a verb; it’s a state of being.

When love is a verb, we are deciding who is worthy of it…. including ourselves. It’s something to withhold or dole out in reward for specialness.

Here’s what I’ve observed as I shift out of my head, lay down my useless heart armor, and move through the world in an open and unguarded way: I am being love. I experience what “everything is connected” means. I feel closer to everyone. Happier. Undivided, yet surprisingly safer. We’re all simply waves on the ocean; individual and made of the same stuff.

Our purpose as human beings is to reconnect with our source — with the truth of who we really are — over and over again. When we focus on being, then decisions on what to do become really simple.

I see now that the only way to change the world — heck, change a company culture, or a family dynamic — is one heart at a time. To lower our defenses and assumptions and fears… to let go of the mind and drop into our bodies… to choose to feel the expansiveness of love, which then shifts any dynamic completely. Find the common ground, not with our minds but in our shared essence as human beings.

I am partly relieved, because this sure seems easier than the grand task of saving the world; it’s a small yet meaningful choice that I can make at any time. And yet the other part of me recognizes that this is not so small, nor is it easy. This perhaps is the work of our lives, and the potential impact is staggering. It will take months, years… heck, decades of practice, dropping into this choice, slipping up, and choosing again without self-flagellation.

Love more.

If all I do is this, for the rest of my life, I will feel complete.

I would like to be of service, now more than ever. If I can be a sounding board for you, please book a call with me. You can access my calendar here. Zero obligation.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

We find belonging in our darkness

My biggest problem is that I look too normal. If you didn’t know me — heck, even if you do — my appearance would lead you to a pile of incorrect assumptions:  that this tall, slender, blue-eyed blonde has always been popular, probably a cheerleader in high school, successful in career and in love, and that I generally get what I want. And when I don’t conform to your expectations – which happens when my mask slips – you might write me off as weird, or a bitch, or entitled, or however else your filter might interpret my usually well-meaning actions. Trust me: I’m pretty familiar with all of them by now.

Let’s just get the big stuff out of the way right up front, shall we? I’m a gay, neuro-diverse (aka Asperger’s or high-functioning autistic), only child, ex-military brat who is never, ever going to fit into mainstream society no matter how hard I try. And oh, how I’ve tried. I learned all the social rules as best as I could, but they’re not instinctive. In my darkest days of trying to be someone I wasn’t, a friend told me, “you’re just not a girl’s girl” to explain why I was gently evicted from that circle of friends. I had no idea what that meant, but knew I simply had to try harder. At what, exactly, I wasn’t sure.

“What do you want from me?” I‘d cry to the uncaring world, weeping alone on my living room floor after another unintended social gaffe led to another rejection or another lost job, willing to drain my life blood for this feeling of belonging that seemed so easy for other people. Through decades of repeated traumatic losses, developing and eventually (mostly) recovering from PTSD, I’ve excavated the many reasons behind the fact that I am, and always will be, an outsider. And I’m ok with that.

Nowadays my outsides are a bit more aligned with my insides: I cut my hair, got a tattoo, and love to wear my motorcycle boots. I’ve slowly figured out how to be myself even in the business world. A few years ago I made an agreement with myself: that instead of sacrificing my life to fit into the mainstream world, I’d create my own. I now see that this motivation powered my decision to bolt overseas. And if I can succeed in creating a sense belonging while I’m on this nomad adventure, anyone can.

Why am I telling you all this? I think it’s essential to start normalizing and talking about the less-sexy stuff that makes us human. Over the past 6 months of solitude and reflection, I’ve come to realize that our power dwells in what we’ve hidden in darkness. That whatever we keep secret becomes a festering wound that’s visible in some form or another to everyone but ourselves. And that the only way to heal is to bring these truths and experiences into the light of awareness: to stand in our strength and embrace them, fully and completely: the beautiful lotus in the mud of human existence.

So I’m not writing this for you: I’m writing it for me. This is who I am, and it’s so liberating to set down the mask under the mask: the one everyone wears whether they know it or not.

The closet is not just for gays: it’s for any deviation from the media-defined norm, and let me tell you, it’s pretty damned crowded in here. When I shared with my dad my delighted discovery that I’m very likely on the spectrum – hurray! My entire life now makes sense! — he quickly advised, “don’t tell anyone.” Because that’s exactly what the older generation did: sweep uncomfortable things under the rug and don’t acknowledge it no matter what, even if the walls crumble and the house falls down.

There’s a reason why Brene Brown is so popular; she’s willing to openly talk about topics that no one else will even acknowledge. Much of the world is suffering from the absence of vulnerability. Society trains us to only see, respond to and judge each other’s constructed identities. As long as we all wear our masks, we can laugh, drink and pretend together that the world is as perfect as we make it look, all the while dying inside a little bit every day, thirsty to be seen for who we really are. And when seen, accepted.

The new thing now is Straight Pride: a far-right meme that snowballed into an actual event in Boston this year where a couple hundred straight conservatives marched in parody of Gay Pride. What a hoot. I actually love this idea, but they haven’t quite grasped the real purpose. A Pride parade is about taking out of hiding something deemed as shameful (but really isn’t) and wearing it like armor so it can never be used against you. Here’s what should happen in a real Straight Pride: everyone marches while holding up signs like:

  • “I’m overweight and I’m proud of it.”
  • ”I’m autistic and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m an introvert and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m sensitive and I’m proud of it.”
  • “I’m hairy and proud of it.”

Or maybe we dig deeper into things that might not make us proud, but they make us who we are. They’re those unhappy facts of life that we need to just own already instead of pushing away in horror like a dead rat. Why? Because countless other human beings are struggling with the exact same secret, all suffering in silence, all losing an opportunity for genuine connection and belonging with others who really, truly get it. Which means I’d expect to see Straight Pride signs with whatever is making each person feel so alone in this world:

  • “I’m depressed and can’t get out of bed in the mornings.”
  • “My brother is homeless.”
  • “I have a mental illness.”
  • “I lost my job.”
  • “I’m failing at ____”
  • “I’m HIV positive.”
  • “I was raped.”
  • “I committed a crime and I regret it.”
  • “I drink too much.”

THIS is what Straight Pride — scratch that — what life needs to be about: the deep inner work of owning who we really are and not what our masks lead others to believe. This is what members of the LGBTQ community have been wrestling to the ground. This is the spirit of Pride that I suspect we’d all love to witness: millions of people stepping into their power by paradoxically embracing what society says is weakness. Which means: understanding. Empathy. Inclusion into this big group we call Humanity instead of the ridiculous infighting that’s going on now between opposing groups in the name of a sad, diminished, lower-case-b belonging.

What do you think, dear reader? Are you with me? Don’t leave me hanging… I’d love a comment or like if you think I’m on the right track here.

Photo by Agustin Fernandez on Unsplash