How Psychologically Safe is your workplace?

The emerging ‘norms’ of hybrid working are creating new cultural challenges for teams, businesses and organisations.

Where this time last year, we were mostly all working from home (and hence in the same boat), there are now many variations, including:

  • Full-time in the office people
  • Full-time work from homers
  • Part office / part home working folks, with different days and hours in and out of the office

While at face value, this looks like the ultimate in flexible work arrangements where people have more choice, it’s not as rosy as it may seem.

Emerging downsides of these new ways of working include a new split of ‘Us and Them’:

  • Full-time office people feeling resentful if they think they are doing more of the work. It seems easier to give extra tasks to those who are physically in the office. After all, those who work from home are often ‘out of sight and out of mind’.
  • Meanwhile, full-time work from homers may feel less included, more isolated and missing out on opportunities. Without the informal connection and shared experiences that happen more easily in the office, it can be harder to build and strengthen team relationships.
  • And then there are those who work several days at home and in the office. For them, the challenge of juggling and adapting their life, work and relationships, based on where they are on any day, can also be stressful.

The emerging problem here is that your culture may also be ‘splitting’ and reforming into new splinter groups that risk undermining core characteristics of high-performing teams – including creativity, diversity of thought, communication, unity and collaboration.

Regardless of what hybrid model your workplace has adopted, there is one thing you need to make it work for everyone. ..

And that is Psychological Safety.

What Psychological Safety IS and IS NOT

Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmondson, describes a psychologically safe work environment as one where there is “A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up..... A team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

These are the workplaces where everyone is confident they can be vulnerable and speak up candidly with ideas, questions and concerns, without fear of any kind of retribution or negative repercussions.

Psychologically safe cultures feature high transparency, respect, honesty and trust applied equally to everyone, regardless of their role in the organisation.

I’ve challenged several senior leaders in different organisations who claim their culture is psychologically safe because one of their stated values is respect. Displaying values posters on walls does not always translate into consistent demonstration of their associated behaviours.

It is also NOT psychologically safe to say one thing and do something completely different. In one organisation the Executive Director prided herself on having an 'Open Door' policy and encouraged her people to 'Come and talk to me, any time.' And yet, when asked why they hadn't raised concerns before they became big issues, many of her people said, 'Her door is always shut and she's always in meetings.'

A Psychologically Safe workplace is also NOT one where everyone is 'happy' all the time. Claiming this is both naive and unrealistic.

Rather, a psychologically safe environment is one in which people are comfortable to share how they are feeling, truthfully.

Why Psychological Safety Matters

So, what’s the big deal about Psychological Safety?

Psychological Safety is the fundamental foundation for all organisational or cultural changes. Without it, you won’t even get out of the change starting block.

Increasingly, popular strategies for increasing Resilience, Wellbeing, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are rolling out across many organisations.  Without a firm base of Psychological Safety, they will achieve minimal change and may do more harm than good.

At the core of Psychological Safety is trust. Where trust is tokenistic or incomplete, people rarely feel safe to speak out or contribute ideas.

With steadily increasing rates of mental illness, many people are fighting battles their colleagues and often managers, know nothing about. 

Research shows that one in five Australians experience mental ill health every year and 45% will experience it at some time over their lifetime. While we’ve come a long way in reducing the stigma, there is still a long way to go.

Adding to this is the stressful impact of multiple, concurrent changes (including technology) occurring at an increasingly rapid rate. People aren’t machines and without a strong core of Psychological Safety, teams are finding it harder to ride the relentless waves of change.

Signs Your Workplace is not as Psychologically Safe as You May Think

While there are many indicators of poor Psychological Safety, some of the most common include:

  1.  Avoidance of sensitive or tough topics - when managing performance issues, it feels safer and easier for manager and employee alike to avoid talking about what’s really going on.
  2. Unquestioned agreement – if no one is asking questions or challenging ideas, it feels safer for team members to keep their opinions to themselves, even when they disagree.
  3. Quick to change the subject - when you regularly ask, “How are you?” and the answer is always “Fine” or ‘’Good”, followed by quickly changing the conversation to a safer topic.
  4. Absent or poor conflict resolution processes. Constructive conflict is healthy and a feature of psychologically safe cultures.
  5. Persistent displays of passive aggressive behaviour with inconsistencies between verbal (what's said) and non-verbal (what's shown) signals.
  6. Passive or active change resistance. People resist change due to often sub-conscious fear.
    When there is a reluctance or no opportunity to openly share and work through fears and concerns, it’s likely they don't feel safe enough to go there.
  7. Subtle retribution for speaking up; challenging authority, making mistakes or missing deadlines is common. This can include off hand remarks, exclusion and dismissing the culprit’s views as irrelevant or unimportant.

    A recent example of this was when one of my clients respectfully challenged a senior executive. She was stunned when the response she received was, “You’re wasting my time!” Needless to say, she will always be hyper-vigilant and careful about how she engages with this executive in the future.

How to Create and Strengthen Psychological Safety

Each member of your team is unique and based on their experience, will require different things to feel safe. While there is no ‘quick fix’, or 'one size fits all' approach, it is possible to increase Psychological Safety to a point where your people feel safe enough to engage in open and honest conversations.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Openly discuss Psychological Safety with your team. Identify what it looks like and seek input into what would need to happen to strengthen it.
  • Gain agreement on what we will and won’t do in our team and gain commitment from everyone. This includes defining desired and unacceptable behaviours. Unacceptable behaviours may include talking behind someone’s back; excluding someone from a meeting or conversation because they are or aren’t ‘in the office’ etc.
  • Develop shared protocols and techniques for having ‘difficult’ conversations and provide training for everyone – not just your leaders.
  • Co-create cultural ‘norms’ with your team such as:
  • Replacing judgement with curiosity
  • Respecting confidentiality whilst fostering transparency
  • Assuming positive intent and seeking to understand
  • Agreed mindsets and ways to view and manage conflict and failure - make it a blame-free learning opportunity for everyone
  • Running the flag up early for help – never struggle alone
  • Swap simply being ‘nice’ for generosity and active kindness. It’s easy to be ‘nice’ and takes more effort to do one unexpected, random act of kindness a day. However the benefits for the giver and the recipient alike are significant.
Consistent kindness and generosity builds trust, loyalty, respect and safety...  and it’s contagious!
  • Broaden the scope of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategies beyond age, gender, ethnicity and ability/disability. Include bespoke actions to meet the specific needs of those who work from home and/or in the office and those who work different hours.
  • Double your focus on prioritisation, especially if your team has or is experiencing significant change. Reduce their overwhelm and implement ways to take the pressure off. This includes scheduling ‘down time’ after peak periods to allow people to rest, recover and recharge

Conclusion

Regardless of which strategy you choose to implement, the most important thing is simply to start. Intentionally, consciously and consistently improving Psychological Safety will reap immediate and tangible benefits for you, your team and your organisation.

Carpe diem

Caroline Cameron

You're not alone!

Need help to create a genuinely safe zone and supportive culture ? Let’s tee up a time to explore how I can help you get started.

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About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

Read More About Caroline

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