• Janelle Ryan

Does Your Team Feel Psychologically Safe at Work?

If you attended my 2018 Taking It Sky High Weekend Intensive, you’ll know that the theme was:


This theme was not created by accident.

It stemmed from multiple conversations with leaders who told me they were craving teams that were more innovative, communicative, (respectfully) outspoken, dynamic and cohesive. They were frustrated with team meetings filled with automatic agreement (to their ideas) or, even worse, silence.

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

Could I please coach members of their team to use their voices more?

Hmm, let’s put that to the side for a moment.

Because 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.

Some tell me they do not speak up in meetings. 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 failure, which prevents risk taking.

But without risk, there’s no innovation. Without mistakes, learning is limited.

As a result, I do a lot of work with people around moving through the fear of speaking up openly, honestly and authentically. And, granted, this fear may have been born outside of their professional working life (how you show up here, is also how you show up over there). But not always.

If you will allow me the indulgence, I’d like to take you back to the mid 80’s when I was in my first part time job. It was with a large-ish newsagency and there were two service desks. One at either end of the agency. I was 15. I was new. I’d never had a job before. So I adopted an age-old learning technique, I watched and copied the older staff’s behaviour. One evening I was at the front counter alone, when the internal phone rang. I answered it 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.)

I can’t remember who was on the other end of the line, but I do remember the reprimand I received for answering the phone that way. Not only did I never do it again, I also become quiet and withdrawn. Terrified of getting in trouble 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, but I didn’t know anything such as workplace bullying existed back then. Almost every time I was called into his office it was to be reprimanded for a mistake I’d made. I was young. I was new to the work force. I was inexperienced. It was a massive role with a huge learning curve attached. I learned to shut up. Say nothing. Second guess everything I did. Cover up any mistakes I made. Do my work AS I’m told. And go home. I lasted two years.

Over these years I learned that going to work required applying a suit of armour. Each and every day. This was because, in my mind, it was important to NEVER SHOW VULNERABILITY, no matter what! The armour was heavy and uncomfortable, 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, that a request to see my boss in his or her office didn’t cause anxiety in me. This boss, over time, slowly removed my armour.

Let’s go back to the leaders who are craving a more innovative, robust, dynamic, communicative team. The ones I spoke of earlier.

The first question I ask them is:

Does your 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? Or 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? So 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 rule no one speaks of anyone 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.

The young girl who learned, from her earliest experiences, that you had to put on an armour to go to work – thanks you. 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 go to my CONTACT PAGE to apply for a confidential conversation.

If you'd like to join a community of leaders who EXPAND, CREATE and LEAD, come on over to my Facebook group. It's filled with free content, conversations, prizes and giveaways. CLICK HERE to join.

If your are curious about my 2019 Taking It Sky High Weekend Intensive, where the theme is EXPAND CREATE LEAD CLICK HERE.