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In Praise of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

How to Get Started and Stay Persistent.

In Harvard PhD Amy Edmondson’s book, “The Fearless Organization”, she writes about what psychologically safe and unsafe environments produce. Amy talks about the importance of creating a psychologically safe environment which includes: Charles Duhigg’s NY Times article on Google’s breakthrough research on psychologically safe teams with Project Aristotle; the Challenger crash that could have been avoided if there was safety for an engineer to confront the NASA hierarchy; the much-publicized landing in the Hudson River by pilot Sullenberger (“Sully”) with risk-taking cockpit conversation and medical tragedies - these could have all been averted in an environment of psychological safety. Organizations that create, experience and cultivate psychological safety know that this is an ever-evolving practice and essential for organizations to thrive. They also know the lack of it has real-life consequences.

I’ve heard executives utter things like, “What is it exactly—sounds like political correctness”, or “What will I have to go along with this time?” These people see psychological safety as an interruption to business rather than a dynamic addition to productivity and morale (the practice that keeps organizations outpacing their competition).

I recently had a client share a story about the lead attorney in her law firm who told her a disturbing story from a case they were working on. With a worried face he relayed that the mother had a terminal illness and only three months to live. He carried on to empathetically wonder what might happen to her three children after she was gone. Later in the day he admitted it was a joke and dismissed her upset as ‘gallows humor’. That time in between my client was distraught and moved to tears as she worried about the terminal predicament and the children involved. Her productivity was interrupted and reduced that day with needless anxiety on top of her already very hectic schedule.

During her coaching session, she brought this experience to unpack and try to gain some insight into how someone could think a topic such as that could be humorous. She was feeling as though this law firm is not a good fit and questioned her position there and how to move forward. We got curious about what she wanted –“Would this experience be isolated as she made a career in law?” “How would facing this kind of office “gallows” humor now empower her to work and contribute wherever she wanted?” What was the atmosphere she wanted in the office for her and her team? Through aligning with her core value of courage and being a voice for equity, she met with this lead attorney and was able to help him see the negative impact of his communication. If he wanted humor and camaraderie, there were better, safer ways to create them and she offered examples and asked for him to step up. Her leadership eclipsed her role in the firm and challenged the environmental norm.

The firm was fortunate to have this woman speak up when she felt unsafe. Many employees choose to leave and do. One Gallup study shows that 1 in 2 employees have left organizations to get away from a poor manager at some point in their careers.

A lot of leaders are aware of the negative work environment yet don’t move to initiate change due to the perceived expense, time and shift in culture it will take to make it happen. The good news is that there are trailblazers who have championed the process and experienced strong results in innovation, creativity, talent retention, increased motivation and productivity. Here are some steps to get started:

1. Open your mind.

It’s already costing you thousands or maybe even millions in invisible costs to ignore the lack of psychological safety at your organization. The investment in organizational solutions are less than 10% of the costs of incivility, poor engagement or mistakes due to an unsafe workplace. The return on every investment dollar is hundreds/thousands of percentage points in the positive.

    How can you do this?

    Start by asking yourself; “What makes it safe for me to take a risk and bring a new idea forward”?

    Notice where you may be collapsing the idea personally, rather than evaluating the idea on its own merits.

    2. Open Your Heart.

    Be empathetic and courageous. If you thought you were going to skate into retirement without significant behavior change – It simply does not work like that. The multi-generational workplace has been asking for “whole person” communication since the 1960s. This up and coming generation is increasing the volume by making their employment contingent upon it.

    Start off by asking “What are the subjects and ideas where we have humor, lightness, engagement, and ease?”

    There could be some lively shares here and an appreciation by team members on what they’re doing well.

    Your next query is “What are the hard spots where we don’t share freely? What can we do better? How can we set that up and explore an idea as a team?”

    Being honest and open where your growth is, opens you and the team to an awareness that leads to new perspectives and behaviors.

    Your honesty opens the relationship for authenticity and safety.

    Take time to observe your team. Pay attention in meetings to what people respond to—is it the idea and the content, or the impact? Discern where team members may be protecting and where they are enlivened and fully engaged with the idea. If there are reticence and protective behaviors, you have some work to do.

    1. Open Invitation to Your Team. Announcing to your team you want to create psychological safety is not your best tactic. Instead, invite an open discussion with them in a meeting. Create a safe climate to challenge ideas, even the boss’s ideas, will take time, conversation and curiosity.
    2. Open to Your Commitment to Sustainability. Keep psychological safety on your calendar in perpetuity. Be diligent and consistent throughout your career. Check in with your team periodically. Ask your team how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety.

    If you’ve read this far, we’re confident you’ll be inspired to make the changes necessary to create psychological safety for your team and in your organization. It is a systemic necessity.

    “Success doesn’t come from what you do occasionally. It comes from what you do consistently.” Marie Forleo

    A special thanks to Janet Harvey, MCC, CEO of inviteCHANGE for her collaboration on this article. Click here to watch her YouTube video on Psychological Safety in the Workplace

    Sarah Graves, PCC

    Sarah passionately and practically pursues the development of leaders through intentional, organic growth. She emboldens leaders to create an environment where management is expansive, willing to move with agility beyond comfort zones, and to champion the individual and collective genius within the organization. With teams in transition she inspires connection, realignment and forward progress within the awkward movements of the changing landscape. Her belief is that coaching is as essential an element for an organization as the product or service the company produces. “An employee who grows personally, grows professionally” and coaching seeds growth.
    Read more about Sarah »