Psychological Safety is in the corporate zeitgeist. That’s great for helping the concept spread but not necessarily so great for maintaining the integrity of what it is.
In fact it can be terrible for it.
As a concept it’s been around for decades but is now flourishing. In the work-from-home Covid-19 environment, it’s an important consideration.
So I sat down to write Post-Covid Psychological Safety and how we can and must achieve this in the current normal.
And then I overheard a conversation which made this a two-part article.
How Psychological Safety gets interpreted
I was party to a conversation recently (by which I mean it was a loud conversation at the next table and I couldn’t help but hear) where a group of health administrators was discussing their office in the context of how things would change post-Covid.
As I was writing this at the time, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard variants of this conversation, it seemed pertinent to pay attention…
There were nods to distributed leadership models and servant leaders. Simon Sinek got a mention as did Brené Brown. It felt like a who’s who or a what’s what on TED.
Then someone mentioned Psychological Safety.
They all agreed it was important and were committed to ensuring it.
Important side note
To be clear, I’m absolutely not taking issue with their intent, because these people were obviously serious and sincere. But despite their nodding and agreeing with what they heard, it was clear they really didn’t know what it was.
And since I didn’t want to be that guy who interrupts to say they got it wrong, I sat at the next table with my coffee and observed.
How the concept changed
Over the next minute or two, the concept of Psychological Safety became something they all thought they knew about and needed to know no more.
It was presented as reducing and soothing personal anxieties, assuaging fears, allowing for individual difficulties, and something much more akin to comfort.
Their take was, I guess, a colloquial, take. Perhaps it’s just synonymous terms?
In the context of their conversation, Psychological Safety meant ‘mentally unstressed’ and ‘emotionally secure’ with returning to the office and being back among others, given recent Covid lockdowns and restrictions.
It was about the leader ensuring that their teams felt reassured, not pressured, able to take their time, stay unstressed, feel protected, and have their emotional needs looked after. If their teams were anxious about going back into the office, then the leaders needed to provide a “psychologically safe environment” for them to do so.
That’s an easy concept to grasp and communicate. It resonated immediately with the group.
And it was done
A few nods, uh huhs and mmms later and that was it. They’d collectively redefined it, agreed how it applied and, I expect, would now use that definition with their teams, further spreading the revised version which easily becomes the culturally acceptable definition in their organisation.
It also means they may not think they could benefit further from actual Psychological Safety. They already have it.
And here’s the thing. This is the thin edge of the wedge.
If this thinking becomes their workplace norm, where the definition means mentally unstressed or comfortable, emotionally protected or removing mental anxieties, it becomes a workplace paralysed by peoples’ fears. We’re ultimately held to ransom by individual insecurities and anxieties.
We may not say what we think because it may make someone else feel, by this definition, Psychologically Unsafe.
That’s a visit to HR just waiting to happen.
We’re afraid to say things for fear of being a Psychologically Unsafe Person. That’s a label right up there with ‘bully’, that would stick.
Where this conversation went is more emotional safety, heading down the track of safe spaces and safe conversations, and deserves its own discussion.
And as I said earlier, with due respect to this organisation, which I applaud for their concern about wellbeing, what they were talking about absolutely isn’t Psychological Safety.
It’s the opposite of what Psychological Safety really is.
The face, and most recent heavy lifter, of Psychological Safety is Professor Amy Edmondson (@AmyCEdmondson), who defines it as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking (see also Ed Schein, Warren Bennis and William Kahn).
It allows you to speak up to problems, views, ideas and people (including those who are senior to you) without fear of humiliation, sanction or retribution.
It’s a performance concept.
Psychological Safety allows you to challenge sacred cows, even if it’s the CE’s baby. “Is this the best way/time/idea to do this?”
It lets you raise red flags, even with more powerful colleagues. “We’ve a safety issue with this process/equipment/approach that puts our people/clients/patients at risk.”
It allows you to highlight problems, even if they seem beyond your pay scale. “We stand to lose market share/credibility/employees if we take that option.”
It facilitates creative conflict because we can pit ideas (not people) against each other, even if they come from someone unexpected. We can disagree, argue about them even, and get to a resolution, because we all understand that argumentum ad hominem is not part of the deal and we refuse to use the opportunity to attack people.
On the contrary, we’re motivated to let the best answers shine, and vigorous debate about the merits of an idea, regardless of whose idea it is, can help us get there. We focus on learning more.
In the words of @timothyrclark, Psychological Safety decreases social friction to allow us to increase intellectual friction. It allows people to take intellectual and creative risks knowing that they’re actively encouraged to do so. “What if we tried this?” or “Here’s a wild idea…”
And if we take smart risks, and they don’t pay off, we consider them smart failures, and we handle them in a different way. We’ll dissect what we learned without blaming those involved. We may even celebrate them.
Honesty is valued. At its most extreme version which, admittedly, may be confronting for some people, this honesty is radical transparency and radical candour (e.g. see @raydalio and @kimballscott).
But at no point in any of the above are you belittled, embarrassed or punished.
Psychological Safety drives creativity, innovation, performance, outcomes and bottom line results.
What Psychological Safety isn’t
Here’s what Psychological Safety isn’t.
It isn’t about avoiding conflict. Done well, conflict is necessary and incredibly useful.
It isn’t about being nice all of the time. Be empathic and caring certainly, but don’t avoid the truth, frank conversations, or debate.
It isn’t being held to ransom by anxieties or insecurities. They need a different response. This is about helping people and the organisation to perform.
It isn’t about dropping performance expectations. On the contrary, it’s about reaching them, and stretching further.
It isn’t about losing KPIs and targets. Chosen well, they’re an important way of organising the behaviours you want. In some organisations, failing to raise honest issues with your boss’ performance is itself a performance issue.
It isn’t about avoiding regular management and business processes. Your usual systems and processes apply, unless, of course, there are better ways.
It isn’t about ensuring that everyone feels perfectly comfortable. Comfort can be lovely, but is usually the enemy of progress. Maintaining comfort leads to us avoiding the pain of growth.
It isn’t about lowering standards. It’s about lifting them. If you need to performance manage do so. If you need to discipline, do so. If your standards are clearly communicated, understandable, fair and reasonable, then you need to insist on them. A Psychologically Safe environment helps you.
It definitely is not about coddling. This is the worst end of the deal. This is protecting people from all threats. It deprives them of opportunities to learn and develop. It never exposes them to challenge or debate. It shields them from information that may be hard to hear. It does neither them, nor your organisation, any favours.
So you see an environment where we prioritise individual emotional comfort, where reassurance takes priority, where we may then avoid potentially difficult truths and where it isn’t ok have conflict, where you must always feel emotionally safe, or mentally comfortable, doesn’t allow Psychological Safety. It actively hinders it.
And as we move into a different kind of work style, with the likelihood of more work from home, Psychological Safety will become even more important.
Hopefully the distinction and definitions are clear. In Part II therefore, We’ll take a closer look at post-Covid Psychological Safety for you and your teams.