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Happy *almost* Valentine’s Day! In the spirit of feeling safe and loved, this week we’re honing in on diversity and psychological safety! Specifically, we’re asking:

  • Do employee identities impact workplace engagement?
  • Can a team-based game intervention develop psychological safety?

Identities Impact Engagement

Engagement has been shown to have positive effects on “performance outcomes, customer satisfaction, and wellbeing,” as well as improve workplace learning (Shuck, 2020; see: LSW Issues - #36 & #51). Thus, organizations are consistently trying to improve employee engagement. However, historically, academic research has lacked the type of contextual specificity that is needed for organizations to properly interpret and apply the research. What this means is that organizations are then less likely to follow research and more likely to mimic engagement practices from other organizations, which may or may not be evidence-based (Dillard & Osam, 2021)... which is why we do what we do! Thus, Dillard and Osam’s (2021) study is a first step to fill in the contextual factors missing from past work by providing “practical real application of engagement knowledge” with an emphasis on employee identity.

The focus on identity in the study was particularly important for a number of reasons. Of course, particularly in the United States (where this research took place), people of different races, ethnicities, sexual identities, ages, genders, etc. have vastly different experiences - in society at large, but also within the workplace (Dillard & Osam, 2021). One of the main reasons I was particularly drawn to this research on identity is due to their focus on Intersectionality, which emphasizes the relationship between our different identities. Since individuals hold a variety of identities, understanding intersectionality is important to understanding employees as individuals and how they are impacted by different oppressive and/or privileged systems (McCall, 2005). As a concrete example, I hold the identities of being a cisgender woman and a queer person, meaning there are two systems that I am vested in; I am also a white person, which comes with privilege. The relationship between these identities is what intersectionality explores. The research explores: how might these identities impact the conditions under which I choose to engage at work?

Alright, alright, I’m sure that you’ve had enough of my social psychology talk…. Back to the research questions! Dillard and Osam (2021) found that employee identities played a large role in engagement! Specifically, there are three areas where identity and engagement stood out: 1. Meaningfulness, 2. Psychological Safety, and 3. Availability (Dillard & Osam, 2021).

Authors found that Kahn’s (1990) factors of influence for meaningfulness fit the qualitative data. Task characteristics, role, and work interactions were prominent in the interviews. For example, one participant expressed their age inhibited them when attempting to “take on more responsibilities (task characteristics)” based on how management viewed young people. Further, another participant faced microaggressions due to their educational background when trying to access more meaningful roles. While higher education is often associated with a positive response in the workplace, the interaction of the participant’s identities (educated, Black, and woman) had the opposite effect. Her identities actually “created oppression and not opportunity” (Dillard & Osam, 2021).

These experience seque perfectly into discussing psychological safety, which is a topic we’ve covered before related to learning (see: LSW Issues - #25 & #73). As a quick recap, psychological safety references the ability to be your authentic self in the workplace without fear of repercussions. The concept of psychological safety gets more complicated when we consider “marginalized identity categories” (Dillard & Osam, 2021). One example provided by a participant discussed how she expressed her concern about a religious oversight but was dismissed by coworkers, which ultimately led to her not feeling safe to express her sexuality (Dillard & Osam, 2021). These findings suggest that intersectionality plays a specific role for psychological safety in the workplace.

Lastly, the concept of availability was assessed within interviews. The authors utilized Kahn’s definition of availability, as representing “the physical, emotional and psychological resources necessary for investing self in role performance” (Kahn, 1990; Dillard & Osam, 2021). The interview excerpt provided discussed being a “beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)” and a young person (Generation Z) during the time that DACA was being reversed. The participant’s identities intersected such that her availability to work was limited; the legislation around DACA affected compensation, while psychological energy was not available due to concerns about the legislation and COVID (Dillard & Osam, 2021).

What does all of this mean for researchers and practitioners? First, more research is certainly needed regarding identities and workplace engagement, as there is a clear impact. Specifically, more qualitative research should be conducted, as several participants mentioned engagement and performance being related to “Black Tax” (Dillard & Osam, 2021). For practitioners, the authors urge leaders to “cultivate a culture of trust and respect in the workplace” (Dillard & Osam, 2021). Professional development (PD) should also be evenly distributed, since this was a recurring finding. PD should be “facilitated with diverse and appropriate representation in mind,” and maintain sensitivity toward marginalized groups (Dillard & Osam, 2021).

Key Takeaway: When considering employee engagement, intersectionality deserves a seat at the table. Psychological safety, a culture of trust and respect, and equitable professional development are key components to ensuring workplace engagement is inclusive.

Read More (Open Access): Dillard, N., & Osam, K. (2021). Deconstructing the meaning of engagement: an intersectional qualitative study. Human Resource Development International, 24 (5), 511-532.

“Building a culture of trust and respect is important to increased levels of engagement, and it also allows for leaders to build relationships with employees that enables sharing of in-depth experiences that can dictate engagement strategies.” - Dillard & Osam (2021)

Promoting Psychological Safety

How can we improve psychological safety in the workplace? Parker and du Plooy (2021) investigated whether a team-based game intervention could increase psychological safety for participants. Participants consisted of 100 hospital employees of various levels; the employees were split into teams of 4. All teams participated in the “Marshmallow Challenge,” sometimes called “Spaghetti Tower” (Parker & du Plooy, 2021). Essentially, teams receive dry spaghetti, masking tape, wool, scissors, and a marshmallow to build the tallest tower they can. The marshmallow must stay seated at the top of the throne 👑. The resources are, of course, limited and they must do this in 18 minutes (Parker & du Plooy, 2021). If you are interested in the task and the research behind it, I recommend this TED Talk. The participants also completed a pre- and post-test to determine if the game affected psychological safety, as well as team learning and performance (Parker & du Plooy, 2021).

Results illustrated the psychological safety “improved directly after the game,” which authors suggest is due to providing an environment conducive to sharing ideas (Parker & du Plooy, 2021). Further, team learning and performance also improved significantly, although not quite as much as psychological safety. However, learning and performance may need more time to show large gains (Parker & du Plooy, 2021).

The positive findings around a team-based game intervention and psychological safety, team learning, and performance provide insight into ways to foster employee learning. While the “Marshmallow Challenge” was utilized in this study, other team-based games that provide an environment for sharing ideas and problem solving may yield similar results. As the authors put it - “psychological safety supports learning,” so let’s start with feeling safe to promote learning and engagement (Parker & du Plooy, 2021)!

Key Takeaway: Team-based games are an effective way to improve psychological safety in the workplace, which may lead to better learning and performance.

Read More ($): Parker, H., & du Plooy, E. (2021). Team-based games: Catalysts for developing psychological safety, learning and performance. Journal of Business Research, 125, 45-51.

Inbox Extras

A reader reached out with an event that may be of interest to many other readers!

“Join a live online Ask-Me-Anything event Feb. 22 from 1-2pm ET with Dr. Joanna Cannon, Senior Program Officer of K-12 Education Program at the Walton Family Foundation.

Joanna has overseen the K-12 Innovation portfolio which seeks to accelerate and advance the field toward a future that will customize learning and instruction to meet the needs of every learner. She will discuss the foundation’s growing interest in topics like R&D and assessment. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the Walton Family Foundation’s funding priorities and theory of change.

Register for this free online event here. If you have any questions, feel free to email We look forward to seeing you at this event!“

Job Opening

Reader Ash K. reached out to let me know they are hiring! The position is for an Instructional Designer role at San Francisco State University. Check out the position!

Pets of Learning Science Weekly

Reader Avi S. sent us the sweetest Valentine gift, consisting of an adorable kitty pair! "These furry little experts in learning theory (Morgana and Guinevere) set out to help answer that question. Morgana sometimes forcefully requests grooming and the hammock by laying on top of Guinevere. They are also walking models of intermittent behavior conditioning and willing to do tricks for chicken and salmon." This is truly the best BOGO situation 💕

Send us your pet pics at

Wondering why we’re including animal photos in a learning science newsletter? It may seem weird, we admit. But we’re banking on the baby schema effect and the “power of Kawaii.” So, send us your cute pet pics -- you’re helping us all learn better!

The LSW Crew

Learning Science Weekly is written and edited by Kaitlyn Erhardt, Ph.D.

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