Does Your Team Feel Psychologically Safe at Work?

Over the years I've found myself in multiple conversations with leaders who are craving teams that are more innovative, communicative, (respectfully) outspoken, dynamic and cohesive. They had become frustrated with team meetings filled with automatic agreement (to their ideas) or, even worse, silence.

They tell me they crave robust conversation, constructive feedback, new ideas and collaboration. And would someone please disagree with them, or suggest a better way, just once?

They ask can I please coach members of their team to use their voices more?

I can, in fact it's one of my specialties, but let’s put that to the side for a moment.

I don’t work with executive leaders only. I also work with employees. The very people these leaders speak of. I’m immersed in regular conversations with them also.

When someone I'm working with confides they do not speak up in meetings, and I ask them why, these are the most common reasons. They are not comfortable putting forth their ideas, sharing concerns or fears, offering feedback, admitting they don’t understand something or admitting they made a mistake. They fear saying the 'wrong thing'. They are fearful of the perceived, or very real consequence of failure, which prevents risk taking.

But without risk, there’s no innovation. One of the very thing leaders, and the organisations they work for, are craving.

Without mistakes, learning is limited. Which can be detrimental to growth of the employee, the team and its leader.

A lot of the work I do involves helping people remove blocks of fear so they can initiate and navigate courageous, authentic and honest conversations.

But how did they obtain this fear in the first place?

If you will allow me the indulgence, I’d like to take you back to my first part time job. It was with a large-ish newsagent which had two service counters, one at either end of the building. I was 15. I was new. I’d never had a job before, so I adopted an age-old learning technique - watching and copying the older staffs' behaviour. One evening I was at the front counter alone, when an internal call came through from the back counter. I answered the phone the way I’d seen one of my more experienced colleague's answer it, “Yeah?” (I actually cringe at that now, but at the time I thought it was the way to do it.)

My boss was on other end of the line and I was very seriously reprimanded for answering the phone that way. Not only did I never do it again, I also become quiet and withdrawn. Terrified of being scolded again.

Workplace Lesson No. 1. Tick.

Years later I moved into my first full time role.

In this role I was bullied for years by my direct supervisor, who had very little patience with this new, young, inexperienced girl who was straight out of school. Without going into a lot of detail around what I endured whilst working for him, I learned to shut up. Say nothing. Second guess everything I did. Cover up any mistakes I made. Never offer an idea or suggestion. Never speak back. Do my work AS I’m told.

During my earliest experiences in the workforce, I 'learned' that being at work required applying a suit of armour. In my mind, it was important to NEVER SHOW VULNERABILITY, no matter what! Never put yourself in the position to be criticised, scolded or laughed at.

The armour was heavy and uncomfortable, it affected how I showed up each day, how I navigated hallways, meetings and even social events, but it protected me well.

Clearly, although I was not aware of it at the time, I did not feel psychologically safe at work.

I wasn’t until, working with an amazing leader more than 10 years later, I slowly learned to remove my armour. I was safe. Safe to make mistakes, to put forth ideas, speak my truth, debate points of view.

Now, let’s return to the leaders who are craving a more innovative, robust, dynamic, communicative team. The ones I spoke of earlier.

Does every member of their team feel psychologically safe at work?

What is psychological safety?

Professor Amy Edmonston from Harvard Business School, who coined the phrase, has identified it as;

“a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

And it has been identified, from research done by Google in 2015, as the most significant dynamic that distinguishes highly successful teams from other teams.

How can you, as a leader, create a psychologically safe environment for your team?

Brene Brown, my queen of vulnerability who teaches us to ‘embrace the suck’ and choose courage over comfort, tells us these are the biggest killers of psychological safety:

  1. Judgement

  2. Giving unsolicited advice

  3. Interrupting

  4. Sharing outside the team meeting

She then gives us her top 4 tips to create physiological safety – and you can implement these today.

  1. Active listening

  2. Staying curious

  3. Being honest

  4. Keeping confidences

If you are a leader, I urge you to take a moment to consider:

Do I listen without actually hearing my team? Do I just nod, biding time until I can get back to my long to-do list?

Do I seek to understand? Am I curious? Do I ask questions? Dive in to learn more?

Do I walk my talk? Am I open to feedback on how MY actions affect my team?

Am I honest with my communication and feedback, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable? Am I clear?

If someone confides me in are they certain I will keep their confidence? Do we have a agreement no one speaks of anyone else outside a team meeting?

Do I acknowledge risk taking? Do I see failures as learning opportunities?

Do I consider every idea and acknowledge the input, even if that idea is not brought to life?

These are questions worth asking yourself AND your team. If you have the courage to receive the feedback.

The young girl who learned, from her earliest experiences, that you had to put on an armour to go to work – thanks you for creating more psychological safety for your team members. And you never know, you may have someone just like her in your team right now!

THANK GOODNESS I eventually found a leader who taught me it was safe to remove that armour. It was safe to speak. Safe to be me. Safe to be wrong. There was VALUE in failing. It was safe to be vulnerable.

Hi and thanks for reading! My name is Janelle Ryan and I am a Personal Coach, Group Coach, Public Speaker, Published Author, Facilitator and International Retreat Leader who helps high performers expand, create and lead.

If you would like some help creating a psychological safe environment for your team OR feeling more psychologically safe at work I invite you to go to my CONTACT PAGE to apply for a confidential conversation.

You may also like to attend my next free webinar, How to Lead Your Team into Phase 2, 2020 (Return to Work)

Restrictions are beginning to be loosened and organisations are entering Phase 2, 2020 - bringing their employees back to work, post Staying Safe at Home. We are not returning to normal. We are entering a New Normal. Are you a leader prepared to support your team into the next phase? CLICK HERE for more information and to register.

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