I was working with a team the other day and one of the members said, “I want to feel it’s OK to say what I am about to say; and if it is OK to say what I am about to say, then I wouldn’t need to ask for it.”
The irony of psychological safety is that you only know you need it when you don’t feel you have it.
What is it?
Psychological safety is a term that describes the phenomena of feeling that it’s OK to take a risk. In my words, I can bear the discomfort of stepping out of my comfort zone in this situation with this group of people.
Research undertaken by Edmondson et al. and Google have found it’s one of the key ingredients in high-performing teams. This research has given us language to describe it and to start thinking about how we can intentionally create it.
The other day in an organization I was working with, I heard two colleagues discussing their manager: “He doesn’t make it psychologically safe for us.” I also hear executives talk about how they need to train their managers in psychological safety.
How do we train for psychological safety? How do we help each other to create the environment for each other to tolerate the discomfort of being vulnerable, of being seen in all our glory and messiness? Depending on our past experience, that can for some of us be almost intolerable. So how do we tolerate the intolerable?
Where does psychological safety come from?
Well, as I see it, it’s partly internal and based on one’s own level of tolerance of the unknown. As to some degree, we can only know it’s safe to take a risk when we have taken one and survived, and we carry that level of internal trust in ourselves around with us wherever we go.
This internal safety level is then heightened by and impacted by the situation we find ourselves in. We have an antenna that reads faces and body language, atmosphere and energy, and makes inferences and draws conclusion. It tells us whether it’s OK or not OK to express ourselves fully.
And it’s an infinity loop as how we are received, then it impacts future decisions, making us more or less confident to take risks in this situation and situations like them. Is that complicated or what?
So how do we create it?
It requires working at the “being” level as well as the “doing” level. Psychological safety is created moment by moment. It’s a felt sense. It often arises out of not feeling safe (i.e., in the bearing of not feeling safe, we find safety — the eye of the storm). It’s not static; it’s dynamic. And it’s not evolving.
What does it require of us?
It requires a mindset of a learner, of deep curiosity, of staying in a conversation with ourselves and others to help each other bear the discomfort of being vulnerable — being in open, transparent communication with each other, in each moment. For example, I can’t make my manager make it psychologically safe, but I can find out what is important to him/her and what he/she needs to feel psychologically safe.
It requires a mindset of taking responsibility for my part in the process and not waiting for someone else to give it to me or do it for me. For example, I don’t wait for the company to organize training on psychological safety. I find out what I can do in every meeting to make it easier for people to take risks.
It involves treating myself and others with kindness and compassion. We are much more likely to take risks if we feel we will be met with kindness — for example, remembering that most people care and want the best for everyone, and if they are behaving badly, it’s because they are scared or hurt.
It involves seeing our interconnectedness and interdependence, realizing that we are all similar in our fears and hopes, yet appreciating that we all have different ways of expressing our true nature in the world.
When we say what is true for us in that moment, we feel liberated and free to do our best thinking, and we became more productive.
What can I do?
- Not pretend to know when I don’t; I can ask for help. This is difficult, especially when I feel like I should know and I am paid to know.
- If someone is behaving oddly and creating an atmosphere, I can ask what is important to them. Usually we get defensive and upset when something we care about is at stake, so I can check if something important to them is at risk.
- I can have check-ins at every meeting, which is an opportunity for everyone to arrive and get present, and to say anything that is concerning them or impacting their ability to be present.
- I can say if something is concerning me, and that gives permission for others to say the same.
- I can find a clean way to discuss the undiscussables.
- I can continuously remind myself that I am human and, as such, I am impacted by others.
- I can take risks to expand my comfort zone.
- I can learn breathing and body practices to grow my ability to tolerate the discomfort of feeling unsafe.