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“Psychological Safety” is Aspirational, not lived Reality – Part I

A Gemisode™ Series – Part I

Could one ever feel safe in an environment that refused to acknowledge their intersectional identities and experiences? Simply put—nope.

Intersectionality, as coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is defined as:

A lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

What does intersectionality have to do with psychological safety? To us, everything. 

Before we examine the connection between intersectionality and psychological safety, let’s first review the words that form the term psychological safety.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, psychological is an adjective defined as, “mental (specifically: of or relating to the total emotional and intellectual response of an individual to external reality)” and safety is a noun defined as, “freedom from harm or danger: the state of being safe”. When combined, we arrive at  psychological safety, which according to Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, is defined as, “A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.

In the 20+ years since Dr. Edmondson first published her paper exploring and building upon the concept; organizations have proudly proclaimed themselves as ‘psychologically safe environments’. To us, that begs the question—just how are these proclamations substantiated and who really benefits from proclamation without substantiation?

People and organizations often proclaim the presence of psychological safety as an idealized practice while struggling to actually make it reality. Data released by the Escell Institute showed that psychological safety, “leads to more effective communication, better employee retention and increased team performance”. We believe the data’s findings; however, to us and realistically, psychological safety is and will remain unactualized because equity does not exist in the world, and by extension, cannot truly exist in workplaces.

Work environments, like the communities we navigate, are filled with people possessing differing beliefs, views and experiences.  They are highly racialized, ableist, ageist, classist, and gendered. In a world built on inherently harmful structural systems designed to exclude marginalized individuals and groups, these assumptions, bias-based prejudices, host of ‘isms’, and other disparities are too deeply embedded in the fabric of society for everyone to ever truly feel safe.


Our experience of the world is anchored not only to our intersectional identities but in how the world perceives and receives them.

In part II of this series, we’ll share our thoughts on what a more reasonable goal for organizations anchoring to the concept of psychological safety may be. In the meantime, if you’re curious about how to practically build healthier workplaces, contact us here to learn about our advisory and training services.