How to Improve Psychological Safety in Your Lab

 ~ contributed by JEDI Committee

Overview of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety was first described over thirty years ago and has been defined as the “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (Edmonson, 1999). People of backgrounds historically excluded from STEM are more likely to feel uncomfortable taking risks and sharing their ideas. Thus, psychological safety is a key component of JEDI efforts.

Haris Domond of Equity Impact Associates spoke at winter RosettaCon 2021 on translating psychological safety practices from the corporate environment to the lab workplace.

Actionable recommendations from Haris Domond, MTS:

  • Create Individual Development Plans for lab personnel/trainees

  • Publish organizational/lab demographic summary data in transparent manner

  • Clearly define PhD Program requirements and success milestones

  • Distribute projects equitably such that all students have opportunities to do high-impact work

  • Be transparent about your goals when critiquing trainees' work

Actionable recommendations from trainees

I. Communication

  • Be observant in meetings to see who dominates the conversation and who never talks and try to balance the voices

  • Give honest, regular feedback about how your trainees are performing (more than once a year). 

  • Make sure your criticism is goal oriented (not criticize the person but the action and outcome)

  • Be transparent about your communication style.

II. Policies and expectations

  • Explicit zero tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior

  • Implement a statement of expectation for people who join your lab (JEDI committee can help draft). Walk through these expectations during onboarding meeting with new members to identify needs/modifications

  • Be clear about expectations at each stage: By year 4, I expect X. You can’t graduate unless Y. 

  • Establish clear timelines and goals with your trainee and try to not overload them with other work or change constantly

  • Go through IDP (Individual Development Plan) with your trainee

  • Respect flexibility in working style and times by explicitly mentioning it. Set your expectations based on outcome/performance rather than hours

III. Lab meetings, new members, lab tasks

  • Introduce new members to everyone as soon as they join

  • Have few meetings to discuss the importance of JEDI-related issues

  • Encourage diversity panels and discussions in your department and your group meetings. Example: Minute for diversity

  • In your email include a link about how students can report microaggressions and resources they can use. 

  • Have a method for providing anonymous feedback from trainees to you

  • Think about having social events or casual conversation time in the lab

  • Check who is doing the majority of non-science tasks in the lab. Usually it’s women and people from other underrepresented groups. Make sure tasks are fairly distributed so that everyone can contribute to science

IV. Leading by example

  • Express vulnerability to normalize it

  • Show interest in students’ personal well being and life. Don’t just talk about science, sometimes ask about how they do and really care. 

  • Be honest about your situation. “Hey, I can’t do that right now, I’m busy” vs “Yes, I’ll do it” and never getting back to them

  • Ask people (especially from underrepresented groups) about how they feel in the lab, build trust, and believe them. Oftentimes their experiences are not heard, unless backed up by a man. 

V. Beyond the lab

  • Try to directly address incidents of racist violence, sexual harassment, etc. from broader society, and be direct and honest about the underlying forces present in their lab, institution, and field.

  • Do not ask members of the affected group to help you understand the situation or write down statements.

  • Show that you care about your trainees and issues affecting their lives (living wage for lab members for example) 

  • Hire more diversely. It gives people confidence to see others like themselves

Data collection and format

These recommendations are echoed by RosettaCommons members as part of the JEDI keynote activity session. There were a total of thirty responses submitted to the form used in the activity. Of those thirty: 36% encouraged explicit policies & clarifying expectations & onboarding issues. 20% described helpful communication practices; and 17% addressed creating lab culture that is safe for sharing by leading by example. Other notable categories included: structuring lab activities, institutional-level recommendations, distributing tasks & empowering allies, and addressing political and traumatic news/events. 

Response/form Prompt

anonymous recommendations for lab leaders (i.e. PIs) to improve psychological safety in your work environment

Recommendations are most useful when they are: 

1. actionable

2. tractable/realistic

3. can be measured 

However, everything is fair game here. Submit what feels right to you. 

We will review your submissions together at the end of the breakout session and will discuss any highlights, themes, and/or gaps in the list. 

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