How to help foster psychological safety in your working environments. What is it and why is it so important?

There are lots of new phrases and ways of working to come to terms with, but don’t ignore psychological safety because this directly impacts what is happening to your people.

Which is why we tackle the topic Leaders are responsible for psychological safety in S4 E10 of our podcast.

What is it?

Psychological safety is about being able to show up at work, to be your whole self at work, join in wholeheartedly without any fear of negative consequences or knocks to your self-confidence.

We’ve noticed a significant shift in leadership away from the traditional authoritative ‘command and control’ irrespective of whether their people are working hybrid or remotely. They have taken time to get to know their teams and nurture safer environments.

Maybe it’s because of the meteoric rise in usage of the word ‘safe’, as featured heavily the world over, due to the pandemic?

Or is it because people feel more secure in speaking up when working from the safe space of their home?

The difficulty is: how do leaders create this same atmosphere when hybrid workers reenter the workplace? If they don’t consider such safeguards, the leadership culture may regress into old, authoritarian ways. Teams may not continue to contribute effectively, question appropriately, be innovative and, ultimately, trust can crumble.

Psychological safety can link back to your personality type, how you work and how that manifests itself in conflict as well as the context and the culture of the organisation that you’re in. There are certain professions (military, medical) that struggle because of the existing hierarchy and sense of power. Yet these sectors are also seeing subtle change creeping in.

There will be times where decisions must be made by a leader, at a certain juncture, no questions asked. It is then that the leader’s style has matured enough for people to feel that they belong and respect a decision having to be made at that point.

As a leader it’s important to be able to move from management style to management style. This is challenging but reverting to old totalistic habits doesn’t make sense.

When your head’s down – ticking off the to-do list, embroiled in many projects, all with deadlines clamouring for attention, changing competitive landscapes – pressure and anxiety grows while common sense can escape us.

Habitualising a supportive and consultative leadership style allows people to be innovative and productive in a protective space. The more you operate within this style, the more you see people’s confidence flourish.

According to Amy Edmundson in The Fearless Organization, psychological safety is not:

  • About personality; or
  • Being nice; or
  • Another word for trust; or
  • About lowering performance standards.

She continues to define the difference between trust and safety: “A key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level. Trust on the other hand refers to interactions between two individuals or parties; trust exists in the mind of an individual and pertains to a specific target individual or organisation.”

So how can leaders foster a psychologically safe environment? Here are our top tips:

  • Invite productive disagreement within meetings and team activities, reaching out to those who are quieter than the rest, knowing that they have a valuable contribution to make.
  • Be open and create intentional spaces by inviting input and proactively responding to show that you’re truly listening.
  • If you notice colleagues not turning on their cameras during virtual meetings, explain the importance of being present and contribution.
  • Anyone you believe to be uncomfortable being put-on-the-spot this way, create safe space by taking the conversation offline.
  • Know the individual characters within your teams – the extroverts who may dominate and the introverts who observe – and their preferences on how to communicate.
  • Become self-aware as a leader. Understand yourself and how you operate, leadership styles and the impact of these on the people around you. Remember to dial up and bring to the fore other characteristics depending on who you’re connecting with at the time. Using a tool similar to Leadership personality types by colour can help you bring balance to situations.
  • Be prepared to be vulnerable: for example, share your working habits.
  • At the start of building a relationship, consider sharing a Human User Guide: this is how I work, this is how I want to be communicated with, these are my working hours.
  • Know your limits and what you do/don’t know. Never be afraid to admit when there’s a gap in your knowledge or capability. This is when you need to ask the team and involve the collective. Create something for the team to do together rather and not as individuals.
  • Audit your team. How do you think they are feeling? Pick up the phone or have a face-to-face chat.
  • When you join an organisation, you have one induction at the start, and that’s it! However long your tenure, the business, its leaders and culture can change drastically over time. ‘Re-onboarding’ every year or two would help to build on that psychological safety.

How individuals can take the initiative

  • Be kind to yourself. Find the right moment so you’re comfortable and confidence to be heard.
  • Read The Five Second Rule to discover the power of counting ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and ‘act’.
  • Have your camera on during virtual meetings
  • Be prepared. Fifteen minutes before every meeting, read the agenda, do some preparatory research, note three or four contributions that you’re going to make
  • Ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ and talk yourself back from that. So, for example, you think you’ll be fired (which for 99% of the time won’t happen): then what’s the contingency on that. When you feel safe – when you have your contingencies in place – it gives you the courage to speak up.
  • Do what’s right for you. Often that’s associated with creating your own psychological safety net
  • Be careful of the narrative that you’re telling yourself. Read our blog on Imposter Syndrome.
  • There are always consequences around being able, and NOT able, to speak up in a group. Take advantage of any confidence training you can find. It’s your responsibility to find the strength to not feel so daunted, speak up and push through no matter how uncomfortable.

How do you define and create psychological safety within your organisation or team? We’d love to know…

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