Do you Feel Psychologically Safe in your work environment?

Do you feel psychologically safe in your workplace?

13 June, 2022

When I arrived at my new job, I was excited to meet my new team. I was looking forward to being welcomed, meeting new friends, and making a difference in the business... talk about expectations versus reality... But instead, I walked into a cold environment where I felt I wasn't welcomed. Don't get me wrong, people were polite, but it was clear I didn't fit in.

A week into my new role, I attended a management meeting. Curious and not wanting to misunderstand, I asked the CEO to explain what he meant… the looks I got from the rest of the team made me want to crawl under the table and hide; if only the floor could open up and swallow me! What was worse was that burning feeling up my neck and face as I flushed from embarrassment. The CEO answered my question, but I won't be sticking my neck out again like that. I'll figure things out on my own.

Later, a colleague advised me, "You must be careful what you say and to whom; people get fired around here for saying the wrong things."

Do these experiences sound familiar?

We hope not; however, our consultants' and coaches' feedback has shown us that this is often a sad reality and not the exception.

How do we change these narratives?

How do we encourage better, more psychologically safe working environments?

It is crucial to ask the questions:

"Do you have a work environment that is psychologically safe?", and

“Do you understand what that looks like?”

Psychological safety fundamentally impacts an organisation's safety culture and future success.

Let’s explore the elements of psychological safety and what we should be asking ourselves as individuals and leaders to change the above narratives.

Before anyone thinks this is all about a utopian workplace, consider what psychological safety is not. It is not:

  • A shield from accountability and responsibility
  • Avoidance of consequences
  • Being nice, hugging, or warm and fuzzy
  • Consensus decision making
  • Political correctness
  • Toxic positivity

Psychological safety is all about the team. How team members come together, learn together, contribute to success, and challenge each other. Psychological safety is the foundation of the culture. Understanding and applying sound psychological safety principles enables your organisation to achieve the desired culture and success.

In his book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, Tim Clark describes the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety can be defined as “An environment of rewarded vulnerability”. So how do we create an environment where vulnerability is rewarded and not punished? Understanding the four elements is an excellent place to start.

Inclusion Safety

Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. Everyone wants to be accepted at work, school, home, or other social settings.

Abraham Lincoln quote -

How do we encourage people to understand each other and embrace that people are not complicated; we are just different?

We love this quote by Abraham Lincoln.

This mindset can be challenging to embrace, and when you do, the dynamic in perceived ‘difficult’ relationships shifts dramatically. It opens up curiosity and a willingness to find connections and build inclusion.

Are we aiming to become best friends with everyone, hold hands and sing Kumbaya (sic) - not at all!

Psychological safety is not about being ‘nice’, warm and fuzzy.

You want to understand others enough to be inclusive, find common ground, and have a common purpose. Do you have a shared vision that brings the team together, and is that strong enough to help everyone accept all differences?

We attain the first element in fulfilling psychological safety. with inclusion in our teams. Feeling included, part of the team, and accepted for who we are is a foundation for us to lean into our vulnerability and feel safe enough to test what will happen when we need or want to learn.

Until everyone ‘involved’ feels included, the following stages of psychological safety are almost impossible to create.

Learner Safety

Learner safety satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. It allows us to feel safe as we engage in all aspects of the learning process — asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and even making mistakes, not if but when we make them.

Are you able to question and learn from each other? Will your questioning be embraced or leave all embarrassed?

Asking questions can be scary, challenging, and sometimes against our past experiences and cultural norms.

Ant was in the army, and the sergeant gave instructions for deployment and then asked, “Any questions?” Ant put up his hand and asked his question. The response was, “S%*t question! Any other questions? Not surprisingly, there were none.

For others, our schooling squashed questioning out of us; who wanted to look stupid or like we weren’t listening? So often, learning slips through the cracks, and many students lose foundational understanding.

Another friend, Sue, recalls her boss saying to her, “Three times, you’ve asked me this three times, are you stupid?”

Whatever our individual experiences may be, to develop psychological safety, we (collectively) need to create an environment where people can feel safe to ask, be curious, and learn.

There is no such thing as a stupid question, but it can be scary to ask. Helping teams and individuals learn to ask well-formulated questions grows the learning culture and helps people feel less vulnerable when ‘putting their necks out.

To be safe to learn means that we need to be able to get information from our teammates, leading on to our next element of psychological safety.

Contributor Safety

Am I heard? Can I share my opinions? Are my contributions valued?

Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to contribute and make a difference.

When contributor safety is present, we feel safe contributing as a whole team member, using our skills and abilities to participate in the value-creation process.

We lean into what we’re doing with energy and enthusiasm.

In the earlier example where a colleague was warned to be careful of what and to whom they speak, positive responses to this question are still not the norm. Sadly this leads to many ideas, solutions and lost innovations because our teammates do not feel safe contributing their ideas. Our contributions may not be considered, and that is okay. What is important is they are heard, acknowledged and considered. It may not be a perfect idea, but the team may be inspired and together find the best solution through the contribution.

If our teams don’t feel safe contributing, they certainly won’t feel safe to challenge or innovate.

Challenger Safety

Can we challenge without being dismissed, stepping on eggshells, or feeling attacked? Do we value healthy challenges for the greater good of all?

Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. It’s the support and confidence we need to ask questions such as, “Why do we do it this way?” “What if we tried this?” or “May I suggest a better way?”

It allows us to feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or risk of damaging our standing or reputation.

There are so many factors that impede challenger safety.

Fear of speaking up and the potential negative consequences.

Team members may be ‘addicted to being right’, leaving them closed to others’ ideas and opinions.

Having your authority questioned, ‘Who are you to challenge this?’. Or thinking, ‘I’ve done something similar before; do I have the right to challenge this now?’

Being able to challenge effectively is a skill that can be learnt and improved.

Helping teams learn how to give and receive feedback and understand the positive or negative consequences of how we challenge can create a healthier and more psychologically safe working environment. Challenging is not about being aggressive, attacking or forceful. Instead, it is about working toward the shared vision and finding the best ways to reach the goals.

Without Challenger Safety, innovation will not happen.

Consider these questions...

Consider the following questions and think about how your people would answer them.

  • Do you have a working environment where people feel accepted for who they are and therefore included?
  • Is your organisational culture one that embraces learning, and do people feel safe to ask questions?
  • How are people’s ideas and opinions shared and heard?
  • Is there healthy conflict where people feel safe to challenge the status quo?

These can be challenging considerations that take time to work through, recognise what is not working, understand the value of building a psychologically safe working environment, bring the team together, and define the team’s norms and ways of being. It takes a lot more than awareness to make a lasting difference.

  • Do you feel psychologically safe in your work environment?
  • Do you want to know where your organisation sits and change the status quo?

We are certified practitioners and coaches in the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. So do reach out when you or your team want to discuss how to measure your psychological safety.

We look forward to starting the conversation with you.

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