CREATING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE WORKPLACES
by David Irvine
As we continue to be aware of what it takes to stay safe in this pandemic, let’s keep in mind the importance of creating psychologically safe workplaces.
It Will Depend on All of Us
There are people in our world who do not feel safe because of the color of their skin. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their gender. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation. This has to stop. It’s time to decide, once and for all, that inequality and this kind of fear are unacceptable.
Living without fear begins with the way we raise and educate our children, relate to each other in our communities, and approach each other in our workplaces. Why not start with the realization that there are people in our society who do not even feel safe coming to work. They don’t feel safe to speak honestly, to offer ideas, or to be themselves. They fear that sharing concerns and mistakes will mean embarrassment or retribution; that if they are honest, they will be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They fear asking questions when they are unsure of something. They sit on their hands, stay within the lines, underperform, and become dissatisfied. When people are afraid, they stay dangerously silent, they disengage, they lie, and they leave if they can. Or worst of all, they quit and stay.
Far too many managers – both knowingly and unknowingly – still believe that fear is what motivates. Too many managers are unaware of how unacknowledged stress and anxiety breeds fear around them. Brain science has amply demonstrated that fear inhibits learning, productivity, engagement, innovation, and fulfillment.
As we emerge and re-engage from this pandemic, the need for people to feel safe as they face uncertainty and anxiety is more important than ever. And a great opportunity lies in front of us to reset the compass and create fearless organizations and lives. Let’s decide to change the world by creating safe, authentic places for people to live and work. Here are seven strategies:
- Take 100% accountability. The issue of fear will never recede in our world until it recedes within ourselves. Taking accountability means committing to examining the level of fear that we knowingly, or unknowingly, create around us. Changing the world starts with looking in the mirror. Taking accountability also means being willing to understand how our past impacts our perception of our current reality. Due to our reaction to past trauma, abuse, and shame, many people do not feel safe living in their own body, tainting every relationship in their life, particularly those in authority. Before blaming your boss for disrespecting you and not creating a safe workplace, understand how your past impacts the lens with which you view the world. Changing the world means taking accountability for facing, healing, and coming to peace with our past. While organizations are accountable for co-creating a safe environment with their employees, security must come from within each one of us individually.
- Take care of yourself. Given the enormous level uncertainty in the world right now, resist the natural human tendency to “push through,” and instead, slow down and define what truly matters to you. Use this time to create a safe place within. Creating a safe space around you starts with feeling safe with who you are. Self-care isn’t always comfortable or easy. Self-care means respecting yourself enough to know what you need and creating disciplined routines that ensure those needs get met. Make sure you get support for yourself so you can create safety and support those around you. We ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves.
- Bring a servant mindset and a generous spirit to your work. According to Lance Secretan, “leadership is a serving relationship that helps people grow and makes the world a better place.” It starts with being a “we” person rather than a “me” person. It’s about supporting people to get the work done rather than controlling and manipulating and helping them be the best they can be in the process. Leadership is ultimately about caring, because leadership involves caring for people, not manipulating them. If you don’t genuinely value everyone’s unique contribution, creating a psychologically safe organization will remain elusive and superficial.
- Be human. At this stage of the pandemic, people are experiencing a variety of emotions. They are nervous and anxious, fatigued from fear, and uncertain about the future. There’s grieving, ambiguous loss, resentment, and a mixture of caution and optimism as we emerge into a new reality. There can be awkwardness with people you haven’t seen face-to-face for several months and uncertainty about new expectations and norms. Take time to listen, to be there for those you serve, and to look for opportunities to connect and have the conversations. Most of what you’ll hear you likely can’t fix. What people need to know is that you care enough to take the time. It’s a time to grant grace and exercise patience. It’s a time to practice being human.
- Get rid of performance appraisals. Stop evaluating, grading, supervising, and treating people like children. Replace parental, disrespectful reviews with ongoing feedback, honest respectful conversations, shared ownership, two-way accountability, and mutual agreements that support both personal as well as organizational success. Be a partner with your staff, not a parent.
- Be curious, humble, and vulnerable. Great leaders know they aren’t the smartest person in the room. They surround themselves with capable people and then take time to learn from them. They know that no one is better than anyone else. We all merely bring unique gifts to our lives and our work. Making it safe means being vulnerable and open to learn from everyone and asking for help when you need it. Being vulnerable means sharing what matters to you and listening to what matters to those around you.
- Invite the bad news and say thank you. If you’re going to live or work together in the spirit of humanness, you are going to have to accept that there will be bad news. Great leaders don’t pretend that it isn’t there and cover up the facts. They embrace the negative and see it as a growth opportunity. Making it safe to bring the bad news isn’t about blame. It’s about ownership, personal responsibility, courage, and honesty. It takes a secure leader to be grateful that people trust you enough to bring you the hard stuff, and open enough to learn together how you’re going to work collaboratively to fix it.
In summary, creating a fearless, psychologically safe workplace does not happen by accident. Just because you see yourself as a good leader, doesn’t mean that people around you necessarily feel safe. You have to be intentional. A safe environment doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees and are polite to each other all the time. It’s about a genuine commitment to honesty and respect. It means having clearly defined expectations of each other, along with high standards and working in partnership to achieve those standards. It also means we accept that we are all human and that we are going to fall short at times and it’s okay to talk about it, learn from it, and recommit to a new course of action.
To create psychological safety, positional leaders need to make an explicit – formal and informal – space and time for open, ongoing, acceptable discussion of error, failure, and shortcomings. Conflict will inevitably arise, and we need a safe place to speak candidly about what’s bothering us, with each person taking responsibility to look at their contribution to the conflict. We need to be intentional about inviting participation and sincerely valuing every person’s input. We also need to be intentional about recognizing and expressing sincere appreciation. What we appreciate appreciates. And, perhaps above all, we need to grant grace that it takes time, patience, and persistence – let’s give the human spirit a chance.
For a more in-depth study of psychological safety in the workplace, I recommend Amy Edmondson’s book: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.
© 2020 by David Irvine. Permission to reprint and circulate is granted.