Organizational Culture

Q&A: Psychological Safety for Black Women in the Workplace

We’ve been getting so many great questions during our Diversity and Inclusion at Work webinars – thank you to everyone asking these questions and participating in this conversation!

In Episode 2, Morgan Smith-Lenyard talked through questions about Black women’s experiences in the workplace, and how employees at every level of an organization can take steps to improve psychological safety for themselves or their colleagues.

If you haven’t had a chance to view the webinar yet, be sure to check out this insightful 45-minute conversation here.

If you’ve already viewed the webinar and want to hear more of Morgan’s responses to audience questions, keep reading!


Psychological Safety Q&A With Morgan Smith-Lenyard

People Operations Business Partner, Help Scout

Q: In what ways are the experiences of women of color similar to and different from men of color in the workplace? What three actions can/should employers take to understand and address issues of psychological safety and ensure that they are appropriate for the different workplace constituencies? 

I wish I could speak to this fully. My experience in the workplace is one of a Black woman.  

I don’t and likely can’t have a full understanding of men of color in the workplace but I am actively seeking deep understanding through reading, conversation, and observation. 

From my perspective, the experiences of women of color are similar to men of color, in that, they’re both people of color. For example, I understand the experiences of Black men in their Blackness. But I cannot FULLY understand or experience how their gender identification impacts their treatments in the workplace. 

So, while a Black man may experience the assumption of lesser intelligence, they may benefit or in some cases be disadvantaged by the assumption of male power and dominance. While people may SEE them in leadership positions because they are male (advantage), they may also be unjustly feared when in leadership (disadvantage). 

Black women are up against the stereotypes associated with both their Blackness and their being a woman, and we cannot deny that being female in a male-dominated society is an added burden, especially in the workplace.  

As far as actions to take go, I would work toward deepening your understanding of intersectionality and how our various identities have shaped our perspective and thus our safety.  

Also, remember that psychological safety is intentional. Be sure to build it into your management philosophy as a company and also bake safety into your core values so individual contributors have it top of mind, too. Ask folks what “safety” means to them. Make safety a part of your engagement follow-ups and review process by asking about what’s made employees feel UNSAFE recently. 

All these things will be data points to set you up for more psychological safety in the workplace. 


Q: How do I address when people think something is wrong with me just because I do not always smile when I work? It is draining to have to always be “extra and happy” or people will think I’m unapproachable, mad, or unhappy, when I’m just focused.  

[Presumably this question is being asked by a woman.] 

This message is timely because I recently told someone, “My face is my face.” And what I meant by that is, my face will do whatever it does and it’s not always an indicator of my mood or sentiment.

When I start working with a new manager or join a company, I always send them a quick email about some “small” specifics about myself such as, “When I’m thinking deeply or focused on your words, my face can give off the impression that I’m angered or disagree. That’s not the case.” I also talk about how my silence or neutrality is not negativity or disagreement. Several managers have told me having that info up front was helpful for them.

Also, if someone outright asks you to smile, I would suggest you share this article with them. Unless you work in retail or food service, smiling likely wasn’t on your job description as a requirement.


Q: What can someone do or say to help people that are different (different backgrounds, different cultural norms, etc.) feel more comfortable sharing their authentic selves at work, rather than feeling like they have to put on a mask [metaphorically] and fit in? 

I think understanding why folks put a mask on is really key in encouraging them to take it off.

Work to understand what they’re fearful of. To do that, you’re likely going to have to get out of work mode. Make sure that you’re actually getting to know the BIPOC folks in your organization.

Eventually, the world will open again. Invite BIPOC folks on your team to lunch, happy hour, to a family BBQ… ALL OF THE THINGS! As you get to know their more authentic self outside of the work setting, you can really be a champion that encourages their authentic self at work.

You can also help dismantle whatever preconceived notions other folks have about BIPOC individuals by responding to comments like, “They seem standoffish/aggressive/quiet/etc.” Try chiming in with, “Actually, I know them pretty well. It’s hard for people to open up at work sometimes – let’s be open to getting to know other folks.”

The only way for people to feel comfortable maskless [metaphorically] is when they know they are accepted and valued without the mask.

The only way for them to know that is to have folks they can show themselves to. Set yourself up to be that person. 


Q: Some Black women have accepted that there are differences in the way they are treated and they do not challenge the status quo. I am a Black woman and have witnessed other Black women perpetuate negative ideas on themselves or other Black people in the workplace – may we discuss this dynamic and why that happens? 

This is all too familiar and I can’t say that I haven’t done it in certain situations very early in my career.

When Black women choose not to challenge their different and subpar treatment and go as far as to lean into negative ideas and stereotypes, it’s typically a protective measure. It’s putting “If I can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” into action. There’s arguably more pain in challenging negative treatment and then seeing nothing change.

That said, ideally every Black woman finds a space within herself and within her workplace to feel comfortable enough to challenge and question specific treatment, microaggressions, and stereotypes. Finding that internal space takes time, and finding that space in the workplace takes organizations focused on this exact topic of psychological safety.  


Q: When reporting to the CEO and he makes comments in a joking manner like, “Let’s not start a riot about reserving the conference room space,” what is the best way to communicate the offense of his remarks without appearing overly sensitive? 

I think this is a nice time to bring up inclusive language and how words can have several meanings, and some of those meanings can be triggering.

You can lead with other examples that may help to drive home your point and make a suggestion for alternatives. Help Scout has a great blog on how to make content more inclusive, but the ideas in the blog can and should also be applied to our speech as well.

We should always pay particularly close attention to language of the time and hopefully it’s safe to call that out as well. Note that terms that may have seemed safe before like “don’t start a riot,” or “grammar police,” or “Blacklist/Whitelist” can be particularly triggering and should be avoided.  


Q: What are some conversation starters with your HR Team when there have never been any Black or brown people at the C-suite level? 

I think this should be stated as plainly as possible. Try leading with curiosity! “When I look at our leadership team, I notice there are no BIPOC leaders. Is this something we’re actively working to change?”

This opens up a conversation. Ideally, you come prepared with some ideas of your own if their answer is that they’re not actively working on anything. You can also share some articles about how companies with diverse leadership (and teams overall) are higher performing.  


Q: Could you share some suggestions for books, podcasts, or individuals in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) to follow on social media? 

My stuff:  

I can be reached for speaking engagements, consulting work, and workshop facilitation at morgan@dismantled.work. 

If you learned something from Morgan’s responses here, be sure to view the on-demand webinar to learn even more on building psychological safety in the workplace!

Morgan Smith-Lenyard is a People Operations Business Partner, with a focus on Talent Management at Help Scout. She finds the most enjoyment in helping every individual on the team bring their best and whole self to work. Morgan has five years of experience in employee engagement, culture building, and recruitment in the tech and startup space. Creating and fostering close, honest, manager and individual contributor relationships and opening safe space for women of color to use their voice are Morgan’s greatest passions. Morgan is an enthusiastic blogger, budding public speaker, and above all, a hands-on and devoted mom of two!