Category: HR

Psychological Safety & Microaggression

Laszlo Bock

Laszlo Bock

Time to read: 4 mins


A colleague recently recommended that I listen to an interview with Google’s Lazlo Bock (the company’s VP of People Operations) on the Hidden Brain podcast.  Towards the end of the interview, Lazlo mentioned two terms that most of us may be unfamiliar with.  Although we may have experienced the phenomena.  These were:

  • Psychological Safety; and
  • Microaggression.

Lazlo’s interview delved into topics such as how employee reviews are done, how employers decide which staff members receive a pay increase, the hiring process, and other HR-related topics.


Unless you’re working in an extremely progressive workplace, most of these topics are somewhat outside our control and influence.



Psychological safety

The topic of psychological safety is intriguing because it’s something that can be observed in smaller teams and in organisations as a whole. It may even exist within your own family.


It’s something that’s hard to describe in words. When psychological safety exists in the workplace, we say it’s a ‘really nice’ workplace; when it doesn’t exist, we hear the workplace described as ‘difficult’ or just plain ‘bad’.


What are we trying to say with these generic adverbs and adjectives?



What is it 

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe from interpersonal risks. ‘Safe’ teams are teams in which members feel accepted and respected.



A practical example

I recently joined a new team.  During our first retrospective I was asked how I transitioning. I responded by saying that I found all of the team members to be very open and friendly. The scrum master added:


“The thing I like most about this team is that there is no one dominant personality within the group.”


Despite the defined roles and a certain hierarchy, everybody made time for each other, and no one was too proud to admit a mistake or say that they missed something. To me, the level of transparency was what made the team great and enjoyable to work with.


People felt safe, and no one was criticised.



The majority and the minority

Our team produced better results, they were generally more relaxed, got more work done, and in a lot less time.


Because our team consisted of more senior team members, an assumption was made that this was the reason our team ran so well. And so, in an attempt to improve other teams, two of our most senior staff members were swapped for ‘newbies’. But this didn’t improve the results of the other teams or diminish our own. That’s because the working culture of the majority influenced the minority.



And microagression…

The other topic in the Lazlo interview, microaggression (one word) is a topic everyone should be aware of. Microaggressions happen every day. When they occur, they’re usually done unconsciously and without intent.


There is an interesting website where microaggression is explained through photos. While some of these photos are blatantly offensive, others make you stop and think. Putting yourself into someone else’s position and understanding how the words we use can be hurtful is an underutilised skill. I implore you to give the article a quick look.



Stretching out the group

Microaggression has a strong association with race and ethnicity, but microaggressions can (and should) be applied to other minority groups associated with gender, sexuality, age, those with disabilities and religious beliefs.



The Freeman approach

Because microaggressions usually happen without conscious bias, what can we do about them? I like Morgan Freeman’s approach, which is to ‘stop talking about it’. There is no need to point out a person’s race or ethnicity (or any of the groups mentioned above). Just talk to a person as a person.

We’re more likely to see microaggressions in casual social settings than in a professional working environment.



Be the change 

Looking at my example of psychological safety, we can see how the majority in a group has a strong influence over the minority.


Trying to change the majority is not easy. It’s even more difficult when you’re in the minority. But sometimes it’s the only option that we have as individuals. Eventually, if enough individuals change, then the majority will change and the way to start is with those within your own circle of influence.



Comparing the two

Microaggressions can destroy a psychologically safe environment. A psychologically safe environment encourages and demonstrates how we should treat others – that is, by relating to others without prejudice, by always giving them the benefit of the doubt, and generally having a positive and understanding attitude towards them.


It also works the other way around. By looking at the benefits of psychological safety, we can logically conclude that psychological safety inhibits forms of microaggression.