Psychological Safety and the cost of Belonging

In our last post we talked about the importance of Belonging in Psychological Safety, highlighting how we can enable it through small actions.

We also noted that the brain is highly tuned to threat, overemphasises loss, and manages the perception of threat in our amygdala.

But that’s actually only part of the story, so we’re going to extend Belonging further.

There are important filters we use for finding our way through life, including how we navigate teams and organisations. Threat is one. Reward is the other.

How we perceive threat and reward affects our physiology, emotions, decisions, and our behaviour. What’s particularly relevant for us here is how these perceptions mediate the way we behave with our boss, team and colleagues, with direct implications for Psychological Safety.

So we want to talk about how this all hangs together on our way to understanding how this shapes what we do in the work environment.

Good stuff feels good. Bad stuff feels bad.

There’s a simple Law of Behaviour known as Thorndike’s Law of Effect. It’s an old chestnut (1898!) and you’ve probably heard it or something like it. Either way, you’ll recognise it.

Essentially it states that behaviours that are followed by a pleasant consequence are likely to be repeated. Good stuff feels good, and we’ll do it again to feel good.

Behaviours followed by unpleasant consequences are unlikely to be repeated. Bad stuff feels bad and we’ll avoid doing it again to avoid feeling bad.

This was later codified as part of behavioural conditioning, using the terms reinforcers and punishers. Fast forward to 2020 and it’s a much more complex motivational animal than what it was when Thorndike published. Humans, though, are no more complex now than then, and good things still feel good, and bad things, bad.

Here’s how it works.

We’re all built differently

You’ll have family and colleagues who seem naturally motivated by avoiding harm, while others seem motivated by gaining reward. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but we definitely show a stronger preference for one over the other.

They’re flip sides of the same coin, formally known as approach and avoidance behaviours. You can see the reward and threat implications in the language of approach and avoidance.

We approach things that may be rewarding and, if they are, it reinforces the behaviour, a la Thorndike. And we avoid things that may be threatening and cause harm and, if they do, it reinforces that we’re right to avoid them.

This is called RST, or Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory.

Bear with me. It’s helpful to know.

Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory

We break this machinery down into three components.

  1. BAS. Behavioural Approach System. Reward based.
  2. BIS. Behavioural Inhibition (Avoidance) System. Anxiety based. Referees tensions between the BAS and FFFS, and where there is ambiguity or uncertainty.
  3. FFFS. Fight, Flight, Freeze System. Fear based.

The sensitivity of your own system indicates how likely you are to engage in that behaviour.

The more sensitive your BAS for example, the more likely you are to look for, and see, a reward in any given context, and shape behaviour in search of it. You’re the person more likely to view a new boss as an opportunity to have a friend at work and enjoy them.

Your colleague may have a more sensitive BIS and be anxious, in order to avoid the potential punishment an unknown new boss may bring. And to be clear, this applies not just to walking down a dark alley which may pose a clear and present threat, but also to existential threats, such as how a boss may react.

It’s a neurobiological perspective on personality and motivation that has chemical signatures for different behaviours.

Let’s translate it to the office

I was having coffee with a friend part way through writing this post. He made the comment that he’d once said to a manager that what was expected in his role was simply to win his boss’ approval. His boss, naturally, had the same job with his boss.

He was somewhere on the continuum from tongue in cheek to scathingly cynical, and evidently his boss wasn’t too impressed, but his point is extremely timely and valid. What was the ‘right’ thing for him to say, the ‘right’ way for him to act?

He didn’t phrase it in terms of BAS, BIS, and FFFS, but it stood out to me as it was exactly how I was framing this piece, and you can see the biological foundations in what he said.

We avoid punishment, and non-reward. We approach reward. If uncertain, we may equivocate, anxiously, until we know more. We’re no more complex than humans a century ago and the same things still drive us.

But what does getting your boss’ approval entail?

What does getting along with your team, or wider organisation really mean?

How do you change your behaviour to fit in? Sometimes that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it may compromise you.

Or, as we said last time, there are costs and benefits to Belonging. What are you prepared to do, or not do, what costs are you willing to wear, for the benefits of Belonging?

Implications for team members

First impressions count. But so do later impressions. And all of us, in some way, manage the impression we make. Impression management is an element in Belonging. Am I one of them?

Naturally, that depends on the rules or expectations that define ‘being one of us’.

Here’s an example.

The definition of Psychological Safety is the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. A central risk-taking behaviour is speaking up.

You will have heard talk about having the courage to speak up, being brave and the like. A Psychologically Safe environment would count speaking up as normal, not brave or courageous. Not speaking up would be abnormal.

But, if speaking up comes at the cost of Belonging, then I’m unlikely to. Belonging comes before safety. If the rules of ‘being one of us’ include never bringing bad news to or about the boss, I have a problem.

I’m less likely to speak up if it incurs disapproval from the boss. Their approval is important, and directly affects my behaviour.

For my boss and team, I may not want to be ‘that guy’. I may not want people to roll their eyes as ‘here he goes again’.

At extreme ends, I won’t raise the alarm that the business is tanking, because the boss never wants bad news. I won’t mention the illegal behaviour I saw, because I really need my job. I may not mention my colleague’s performance because one doesn’t rock the boat, especially when one is in it.

I may agree with things to keep the peace. I may refuse to criticise or call out behaviour because I’ll be sidelined or cut off.

‘Being one of us’ may mean I self-censor, and don’t say things I would like to, or even should, say.

It also may mean I say things I wouldn’t like to, or shouldn’t, say, such as I agree with our strategy, tactics, hiring decisions etc.

Your threat and reward systems are excellent at this game. Belonging is important to us. Impression management counts. So does your boss’ approval.

Implications for leaders and managers

Implicit here is the heavy, heavy responsibility on managers and leaders, whose actions disproportionately affect their teams.

It’s not an overstatement to state that manager and leader behaviour affects people’s biology and chemistry to a molecular level.

For example, you can break your team’s BAS processes down into four separate elements: Wanting, Incentives, Striving, and Liking. Here’s how you, as a leader, impact them*.

BAS processDescriptionDominant chemical
WantingDesire to possess resourcesTestosterone
Incentive motivationIdentification and seeking new resourcesDopamine
StrivingInvesting effort in goal-achievementSerotonin
LikingReactions to receiving a rewardEndogenous opioids
Behavioural Activation System components

Your behaviour as a boss, the expectations you set (knowingly or unknowingly), and the environment you create, impact the chemistry, neurobiology and subsequent behaviour of your people.

Your natural BAS people learn to rein it in because of you, and act unnaturally. Your natural FFFS and BIS people are reassured they were right to be uncertain of you. For them all, you suppress their testosterone, dopamine, serotonin and natural opioids.

And we haven’t even mentioned oxytocin which, in good supply, can promote prosocial behaviour and heighten social function, while simultaneously decreasing threat vigilance.

People prioritise Belonging over other things, and you don’t get their best work. They don’t speak up, but they also don’t deliver innovation or creativity, play well with others, and they don’t learn as well.

It’s different for you as a manager or leader, because the power of your position naturally increases your approach behaviour and decreases your inclination to inhibit, juicing up your BAS sensitivity and winding down your BIS/FFFS sensitivity.

That means you’ll express your opinions more, experience more positive and less negative emotion, perceive rewards more readily (e.g. think that people like you), perceive threats less readily (e.g not think that people are upset with you) and, potentially, dominate resources more.

Here’s the takeaway

Belonging is important, but if the costs and threats of Belonging outweigh the benefits and rewards, people’s behaviour will tell you how they’ve arranged their priorities. Better the reward of the boss’ approval than the threat of being the bearer of bad news.

Important then, to understand whether your people are reward seekers or threat avoiders, what’s normalised in your team, how people feel they have to manage their impression to Belong, and the effect of your management or leadership style.

If no one is speaking up, if voices are silenced, it’s because they’ve been rewarded for Belonging over having a voice.

It’s a simple Law of Effect.

* Adapted from Krupić, D. and Corr, P. J. (2017). Moving forward with the BAS: Towards a neurobiology of multidimensional model of approach motivation. Psihologijske Teme, 26(1), pp. 25-45.

One thought on “Psychological Safety and the cost of Belonging

  1. Pingback:How to help your people to speak up | Cerebra

Leave a Reply