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Early in my career, I was excited to land a job at a top mortgage bank, but just a few weeks in, I observed a culture of backbiting and people-pleasing.  I also noticed that the company struggled to retain new employees. It struggled to innovate as new, better ideas were quickly squelched by the pressure to maintain the status quo, which served only a handful of highly visible employees. As I connected with people one-on-one, it became apparent that no one felt a sense of psychological safety. Recently, this term has re-emerged as workplace dynamics shift in light of ongoing issues from “the great resignation” and “quiet quitting” to hybrid work and mass layoffs across several industries due to economic uncertainty.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological Safety is the feeling and belief that you can freely share your opinions and ideas without fear of being degraded or shamed.  The term was coined in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor specializing in developing high-performing teams, but it didn’t gain traction until 2015. Now more than ever, companies want to retain top performers and reap other benefits of creating a culture of psychological safety, including:

  • Enhanced employee engagement
  • An inclusive workplace culture
  • Greater creativity and new ideas
  • Improved employee well-being
  • Authentic brand ambassadors.
  • Reduced employee turnover
  • Boosted team performance

Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work related content

Amy Edmondson

Psychological safety is central to inclusion and belonging for employees from underrepresented groups.  People of color, women, non-binary, employees with disabilities, and other marginalized groups often report feeling a lack of psychological safety because they are met with microaggressions and bias in the workplace.

What This Means

Psychological safety for employees from underrepresented groups brings tangible results. They openly contribute to productive discussions that include opposing viewpoints and ideas.  They believe that their team members support them even when they are not present and will go to bat for them by interrupting unconscious bias and microaggressions that may arise. Employees are comfortable asking questions and disclosing their mistakes because they see leaders model this behavior.

If this doesn’t reflect your current work culture, it’s time to focus on creating and fostering psychological safety in your organization. When you don’t foster psychological safety, you may instead notice undesirable developments in your teams:

  • Team members become quieter and are rewarded for maintaining the status quo. New ideas are met with silence and backbiting.
  • Feedback received from direct communication differs from the one gathered from anonymous polling.
  • Team morale is persistently low, and turnover is persistently high.
  • Team members including leaders, rarely, if ever, admit weaknesses or mistakes.
  • You’re never sure if your words will be well received, and feedback isn’t often shared or requested.
  • Conversations mainly focus on the positives and rarely on growth opportunities or learnings.
  • The same employees are often recognized, promoted, and given new projects.

It’s important to remember that psychological safety is not about self-confidence, and it’s not up to employees to develop.  It is consistently fostered and intentionally modeled by leaders in the organization. In a follow-up blog, we’ll cover how to create psychological safety with your employees. Hint:  It’s not with more diversity training.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile