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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Developing Whole-Mind Leadership

Since Rene Descartes developed Rationalism back in the early 1600s, we in the Western world have put the logical, analyzing mind on a pedestal. According to Descartes, “reason alone determined knowledge, and that this could be done independently of the senses.” He also argued that the mind is separate from the body.

Today we see the effects of Descartes’ left-brain worship. Organizations are fragmented into departmental boxes and org charts. The healthcare profession is fragmented and specialized, rarely treating individuals as a whole. Schools teach subjects in isolation from one another, teaching kids from an early age that compartments are king.

But is this how we really work? Humans, organizations and societies are complex systems with feelings and vulnerabilities… interconnected wholes that cannot be reduced into pieces and parts. The consequences of the rationalist approach can be seen everywhere, but let’s stick with the ones for business:

  • sterile and soul-killing cultures, which kill employee loyalty
  • fragmented customer experiences, which kill customer loyalty
  • proliferating and competing strategies, which kill efficiencies and forward momentum
  • businesses rewarded for measurable short-term gains at the expense of the broader society and environment in which they operate

becoming whole humans

The outer world is fragmented because we’ve chopped ourselves up on the inside. Individuals who aren’t comfortable in their bodies retreat to the perceived safety of the brain; those who are comfortable in the realm of body, emotion and intuition reject the structure of the analytical mind. We’ve cut ourselves into two, with perilous consequences.

Insanity is, of course, doing the same things over and over again while expecting a different result. It’s time for a new approach: one that works with our humanity and the laws of nature instead of against them… one that embraces our whole selves and all the modes of intelligence that reside within.

The Whole Mind model recognizes that what we call “the mind” does not reside solely in our brains. Did you know that we have 100 million neurons in our guts? We have a felt wisdom in our bodies that has evolved over millennia. Logic and planning was the last to emerge, and must work in harmony with our other intelligences for us to be fully, humanly complete.

The model includes two brain-based modes (analyzing and connecting), two body-based modes (feeling and sensing), and a fifth that I call Orchestration: a meta-mode that knows when and how to use the other four.

If you have strength in….

  • Analyzing: You’re comfortable with structure, compartments and processes, and tend to make dramatic improvements in efficiencies. Structured thinking is also an effective way to gain clarity, solve problems, and prioritize actions and investments.  
  • Connecting: Thanks to pattern-matching and divergent thinking, you can see things that Analyzing can’t: the gestalt, the “third way” beyond binary options, and innovative approaches borrowed from other sectors and contexts. This is the source of rapid intuition based on prior experience.
  • Sensing: You fully inhabit your body. You have a grounded energy and can feel “yes” and “no” intuitive responses; this inner barometer is rarely wrong. You likely have a strong presence that others can feel when you walk into a room. Check out this video where I explain how to use Sensing Mind to navigate like a bat.
  • Feeling: You’re deeply in touch with their own emotional world, and more likely to be empathetic in their work and personal lives. You can be more responsive rather than reactive: a powerful trait for a leader. Check out this video where I go into more detail on how Jobs and Dr. King mastered this mode.
  • Orchestrating: You have all the mind modes in their toolbox, and know when and how to apply them based on the context.

I stumbled into this model unintentionally. My brain is naturally wired for Connecting: lateral, emergent thinking. I can see patterns, the gestalt, and how everything is connected. But when I went to work at a management consulting firm, Connecting was beaten out of me in favor of a linear, logical approach that fit the PowerPoint factory process. I learned the Analyzing mode.

But I was a brain on a stick: all my energy was in my head, having disconnected myself from uncomfortable emotions in the body caused by trauma. I had no idea how to work with emotions, and the concept of somatics — body-based wisdom — was utterly foreign to me. Fast forward through a lot of coaching, therapy, 15 years of meditation, what finally did the trick were simple exercises that I now use in my own coaching practice.

  • Learning how to listen to my inner wisdom: what yes and no feel like in my body
  • Learning how to recognize and label emotions that arise
  • Following what lights me up and brings me joy
  • Stepping off the endless stress of the corporate hamster wheel to forge my own path that’s true to who I am.

I’ve developed all four mind modes, plus the ability to Orchestrate: in other words, to recognize which mode is needed given the context. This is a bit like having more tools in the toolbox and knowing how to wield each one. The most effective business and life strategies use all four Modes, which I’ll talk about further in a separate piece.

Leadership redefined

This model is highly relevant for leaders who want to bring more humanity into the workplace, improving culture and boosting loyalty of employees and customers. These are leaders who I call rebels with a cause: rejecting “business as usual” in favor of a new approach that creates the ripple effects of change well outside the bounds of their teams and companies… and unlocks the freedom to be our whole selves at work, which is how we thrive together.