Post-Covid Psychological Safety (2 of 2)

In our last post we noted that while Psychological Safety isn’t new, it is certainly trending and, post-Covid, requires some thought.

We spent the time working through the differences between emotional safety (more like comfort and security) and Psychological Safety, which is a performance concept defined by Edmonson as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It allows you to take risks, speak up, fail, innovate and try new things, without fear of humiliation or retribution. It’s critical to success.

With a few months of Covid-19 under our collective belts, and the likelihood that many workplaces will shift to an office/home hybrid, it’s unavoidable that office and team dynamics change too. You may have had, or are about to have, a change in personnel, structure and leadership.

With that comes a necessary rethink of how we recreate, create, or develop Psychological Safety.

We’re going to start with the basics: belonging.

You can’t ignore biology

We’re social creatures, wired to connect to other people, with the probable exception of Norwegian fur trappers who seem wired to spend months alone. But the need to connect comes with benefits and costs.

At a simple biological level, we pay careful attention to who is like us, and who isn’t. The sheriff in this town is your amygdala (Latin for almond). Your two amygdalae are almond-shaped structures in your brain that pay sensitive attention to threat.

They’re constantly assessing potential threats, and that includes other people and how they behave. When they detect and assess something, or someone, as a threat, they respond by activating your threat and defense system, beginning with the fight or flight response.

The response can be small or large, depending on the circumstances. A small response may just be the adrenaline hike and pulse lift you feel if you catch your boss looking over your shoulder. A large response may be the adrenaline surge, sweats, dry mouth and other reactions you get when cornered by your office bully or harasser.

Conversely, when we’re in the company of people with whom we have at least a moderately good relationship, our amygdalae identify them as allies, and suppress the threat system. The sheriff deputises them. Friends help us release oxytocin, which helps dampen the stress response.

Actually, it’s more than that, they actively and chemically reinforce our feelings towards them when we realise we’re on the same side. Biologically, we’re saying they’re one of us. This chemical transaction gives them currency with our amygdalae for next time, and helps to build our relationship.

This is an inescapable element of work life, and the feeling of belonging is a critical one to get right.

They’re one of us

“They’re one of us” is an incredibly powerful and durable in group/out group feeling. Hopefully you’ve felt it.

No doubt you’ve felt when it wasn’t there, from mild forms where you’re simply new and don’t know the office vibe yet, to more extreme forms of exclusion, discrimination and the like. Belonging requires being included, being valued, and being allowed a voice.

Once established, it goes beyond the appearances (like skin colour) that can hinder its development, and allows us to completely pull a team together. This is Belonging.

Belonging is impossible without Psychological Safety. Even Maslow put Safety before Belonging. And belonging helps Psychological Safety.

It’s crucial then, to have ways that people can identify with the group or team, and thus belong.

If you’re a sports fan, it’s obvious who you support and which team you’re on. You have a uniform, maybe a chant or song, a language, ingroup behaviours, solid sense of identity, solidarity even, and so forth.

Your work team, figuratively, may need the same.

But think about the values of your work team. Are they clear? Does everyone know what they are? What does this team stand for, and have we all agreed to it? Are we happy with them? And how do our values fit with the wider organisation? No work team exists in a vacuum.

A team song might translate to a team ritual. A cross-team workgroup I know opens and closes every meeting with a positive thought. It could be a good wish, a short poem, a prayer, and so on. The content of the opening is less important than the ritual. The ritual, the shared behaviour, is what forges belonging.

And like any relationships, work relationships take effort.

Yes, there are friends you have where you catch up once a year and it’s as if you’ve never been apart. But those friends have the benefit of having already built a robust relationship with you, over time, and thousands of micro-opportunities to fortify that relationship.

Take advantage of small opportunities

First, because the sheriff is vigilant, it’s a system that’s constantly adjusting. Consequently, we need to ensure numerous small opportunities to build relationships, rather than occasional large ones. Relationships are built on the accumulation of good things that happen between people.

They don’t need to be earth-shatteringly good things, (although the occasional one doesn’t hurt) they just need to be mildly to very positive.

In terms of building Psychological Safety then, we need to engage in frequent low-key positive interactions with our people, rather than long periods of little or no contact punctuated by occasionally throwing them a bone and fooling ourselves we have a good relationship.

We can’t expect it to happen without effort and intent.

We count loss more than gain, so we need more gains

Second, because the brain is built to register threat and loss first, it registers loss more heavily than gain, so the good things need to outnumber the bad things.

The sheriff has a long memory. The amygdala joins hard against the hippocampus which is the structure that converts short term memories into long term memories. Nothing gets to the hippocampus without the sheriff having a nosey first.

He absolutely remembers what happened last time and the effect it had, and particularly if it was negative. What’s more, he kept score. So you can’t just make up for a negative interaction by doing something positive, or even grand, and thinking we’re even.

You have to do more.

How much more?

About five to seven times more.

More specifically, three more if you’re in a long-term intimate relationship. Five if you’re in a collegial/friend relationship. Seven if you’re acquaintances or just getting to know someone at work. They’re not precise numbers, but they’re close, and you get the idea.

Small negatives require slightly larger positives to undo them, by a factor of five to seven. In a long-term relationship, you already have currency, and it’s easier to undo negative things, because you (hopefully!) have a positive body of work to point to. Less so for most work relationships, hence the requirement of the higher ratio.

If there are no, or few bad things, then outnumbering them is easy, but it takes work.

Thinking about Psychological Safety then, you now need to multiply that by the required interactions between you as a manager and each of your direct reports, and each of your reports with each other, and then you with everyone on your team, and you with your line manager, and then everyone else you want to build relationships with.

Create more opportunities to belong and build

In order for someone to voice they are being marginalised, dismissed, excluded and the like, they need to feel safe enough to do so, without fear of retribution. That’s proven through example and the experience of being in the team, rather than policies, although policies are important.

Creating opportunities for belonging is also one of setting example.

If your people are now spending time working from home, you obviously have much less opportunity to eyeball them, bump into them at the watercooler and have hallway conversations, and neither do they have it with each other.

That means we have to overcompensate.

They need frequent, small opportunities to build belonging and relationships. That means creating and opening opportunities for connection and feedback, within and between teams.

Here are some thoughts. Remember, we need positive interactions to accumulate and outnumber the negative, to help the feeling of belonging.

  • One team has a 15 minute chat remote chat each morning. It’s not shop talk, it’s chat, purely to connect. Camera and mics are required to be on. Some people talk more than others, but it’s important everyone checks in. It’s brief so it doesn’t feel like a ‘meeting’.
  • A previous manager of mine was diligent about a weekly catch up, typically of 60-90 minutes. That’s probably better as two shorter ones at the moment, and keep it to 25 minutes each. This would give me five minutes for a stretch, snack or coffee if I have another meeting back to back.
  • Ensure that people get what they need in terms of contact with you, and each other. Some will need more time than others, but be fair in that everyone gets the same opportunities. It’s easier to spend time with people our sheriff likes, which can quickly magnify feelings of isolation in others. We can get isolated if we’re not in the office, and if we’re new, and if the team avoids spending time with us.
  • Form cross-team opportunities too. Some people we know have done an online quiz each day. It’s only 10 questions, and takes only ten minutes but anyone who’s minded to can turn up. About eight people do, out of about 12 regulars. Only two of them work in the same team, but they all share a common interest in trivia. It’s the discussion and debate about the questions, and the buzz from getting them right, together, that’s the benefit. That’s belonging. (And for what it’s worth, that team feels more connected now than when they were in the office together.)
  • Run surveys as a way of getting feedback from people, and then invite a discussion about the survey. It can allow a different discussion and better outcomes. Alternatively, run surveys just to check in and see how people are feeling or coping. If it’s company-wide, you can catch isolation and belonging problems early.

And to quote a previous post, use the most powerful tool in your toolbox, and listen. Sometimes voices are hard to hear.

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