Psychological safety stems in large part from a shared set of group values, norms, and experiences. When we’re in a group that shares the same perspectives, life experiences, language and culture, we feel safer and more able to listen, contribute, admit mistakes and challenge the ideas of others.
Think about tribalism – which is sometimes framed as a negative, but can be extremely powerful for good and for bad. Football fans who all passionately support the same team, are an incredible support group and safe space for many people. But of course there can be a dark side to the same phenomenon, as manifested by football hooliganism and violence, whereby outgroup members are seen as “The Other” and thus either a threat, or a group to be dominated or beaten.
Being part of a “tribe”, a group of similar people (similar in whatever way brings that tribe together, whether it’s a football club or a sexuality) brings with it a sense of belonging and safety.
Groups of people who are more similar, who have similar life experiences, language, values, and expectations (of each other and of themselves) will find it easier to attain higher levels of psychological safety because they understand more implicitly whats expected, what behaviour is accepted and “good”, and feel less fear from other members of the group
This is why it’s useful to have “safe spaces” where people, for example, LGBTQ+, or people of colour, can talk openly about the things they’re dealing with. Having people in the group without that life experience can make psychological safety harder to attain – but not impossible. This applies not just to those who we’d typically view as disadvantaged or disenfranchised in some way – we are all somewhere on the myriad spectrum of intersectionality.
For example, I, as a white, english speaking man, may feel very safe in a very heterogenous group of different genders, ethnicities and languages by dint of the privilege as a white man that I’m lucky to benefit from – but if I was in a group that also consists of various Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos characters, I’m probably going to feel very psychologically unsafe, and I’d be highly unlikely to speak up, admit mistakes, and certainly not challenge the ideas of others in the group.
Creating a homogenous group, whether it’s of gender, sexuality, class, colour or background is a shortcut, a cheat code, for psychological safety.
But ultimately, homogeneous groups will never attain the performance level that a highly diverse, heterogenous group will. Diversity brings different experiences, knowledge, insights, that increase the ultimate capability of the group to do the thing they’re trying to do – whether that’s build a product or run a country.
So, whilst a homogenous group can be an effective way to increase, quickly, the psychological safety of a group, it is just a shortcut. It’s not a reason to suggest that we should create homogenous teams – and certainly not an argument to segregate society, if one was that way inclined.
Diversity arguably does make psychological safety harder to attain, because there isn’t as much of a set of inherent shared group norms, beliefs and experiences. However, that “weakness” is also a strength. By working on creating those group norms, values and behaviours, a more diverse group can reach far higher potential than a less diverse, more homogenous group – through exploiting that wide spectrum of experiences, knowledge and insights.