Psychological Safety & Vulnerability

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Vulnerability plays a large part in Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety is primarily associated with the workplace and refers to the idea that people feel comfortable taking risks, raising concerns, and speaking up without fear of negative consequences.

There are many descriptions and definitions of Psychological Safety, and we like the one from Dr Timothy Clark:

"An environment of rewarded vulnerability." 

Vulnerability is the cornerstone of creating Psychological Safety and is worth spending time on.

Let's talk about Vulnerability

Being vulnerable is a universal experience that all human beings encounter. It may manifest differently from person to person, but the essence of vulnerability is the same. You're opening yourself up to vulnerability whenever you leave your comfort zone and expose your insecurities, uncertainties, or fears.

Various factors, such as past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, goals, and fears, influence our vulnerabilities. They shape how we behave, perform, think, feel, and interact with others. Establishing a culture of Psychological Safety in which inclusive and secure interactions entails role-modelling and acknowledging acts of vulnerability.

In essence, building Psychological Safety is about creating a supportive environment where people feel comfortable being themselves, expressing their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment, and taking risks without fear of failure. Furthermore, by rewarding and recognising vulnerability, we can foster a culture encouraging individuals to embrace their vulnerabilities and develop a growth mindset leading to increased trust, collaboration, and creativity within teams and organisations, ultimately leading to better performance and overall success.

Common Acts of Vulnerability

Expressing yourself:

  • Being your authentic self
  • Interacting with other people
  • Expressing your emotions
  • Sharing something personal

Asking for help:

  • Asking for help
  • Admitting you don't know
  • Asking for more resources

Taking risks:

  • Trying something new
  • Making a mistake
  • Giving an incorrect answer
  • Accepting more responsibility

Engaging in communication:

  • Contributing to a discussion
  • Clarifying expectations
  • Receiving feedback
  • Raising a concern
  • Expressing disagreement
  • Challenging the way things are done
  • Pointing out a mistake
  • Offering a different point of view

The above list is not definitive, and you may have experienced many more acts of vulnerability.

Punished Vulnerability creates Environments of Low Psychological Safety

While some forms of punishing Vulnerability are macroscopic and clearly against an organisational policy, others are microscopic and almost indetectable. Hence, why it's easy for cultures with fearful employees to allow their team members to suffer, in these organisations, punished vulnerability becomes so routine and consistent that you might assume it's how it's always been and how it will always be.

Consider that these events activate the brain's pain centres, triggering the self-censoring instinct, shifting the individual to a defensive performance mode, and opening up a person's Vulnerability.

Lack of support:

      • Dismissing requests for help
      • Refusing to provide more resources for larger/new tasks

Resistance to change:

      • Asking someone to try something new without clear expectations
      • Shutting down candour/challenges to the status quo

Reactive behaviour:

      • Reacting poorly to mistakes and failures
        Taking feedback poorly

Unreasonable expectations:

      • Ignoring effort and expecting perfection
      • Not taking "no" for an answer

Because an individual's experiences with Vulnerability are unique, you might not realise that your actions are punishing the vulnerabilities of your team members.

Take a sense check and ask yourself the following questions:

How do people react when I walk into a room?

  • What kinds of barriers exist between my team members and me? Why?
  • Do I naturally include or exclude others?
  • Do people feel safe to be their authentic selves around me?
  • Are there patterns of unsuccessful interactions in my day-to-day life?
  • What’s hard for my team members?
  • Do I contribute to the difficulty?

If you recognise or resonate with any of the above, let's discuss your levels of Psychological Safety in your team.

A Neutral Response to Vulnerability | Varied Levels of Psychological Safety

Neutral responses to Vulnerability can create an environment of uncertainty, where people are unsure whether their actions will be rewarded or punished.

Although Vulnerability may sometimes be rewarded, lacking consistency can lead to hesitancy and doubt. As a result, people who experience neutral responses to Vulnerability live in a constant state of uncertainty, which can prevent them from taking risks or speaking up in the future.

Simply avoiding punishment for acts of Vulnerability is not enough to create a culture of Psychological Safety.

To fully benefit from such a culture, leaders must actively reward acts of Vulnerability. Ignoring or acknowledging Vulnerability alone does not foster an environment where individuals feel safe to take risks and share their thoughts and feelings. Instead, by intentionally rewarding acts of Vulnerability, leaders can create a culture where individuals feel comfortable being their authentic selves, sharing their perspectives, and taking risks without fear of judgement or punishment.

Rewarded Vulnerability | High Levels of Psychological Safety

When leaders reward acts of vulnerability, it can make a palpable difference in the energy and culture of the workplace. However, rewarding vulnerability requires an active choice and intentional effort.

To create a culture of Psychological Safety, leaders should:

  • Self-reflect often and notice the unspoken norms of the space
  • Start open dialogues about the team's vulnerabilities and how they're currently being punished
  • Reward vulnerabilities instead of punishing or ignoring them

Common instances of rewarded vulnerability include:

  • Verbally acknowledging and actively respecting boundaries
  • Expressing gratitude for candid emotions or feedback
  • Giving people the space to process
  • Making yourself available and interruptible
  • Valuing honesty over correct answers
  • Clarifying outcomes and expectations
  • Offering a way forward after a mistake

Leaders should also model vulnerability themselves, especially if they hold positions of authority. By engaging in acts of vulnerability, they can show others it's safe to do the same.

To ensure that vulnerability is being rewarded instead of punished, leaders should ask themselves:

  • What acts of vulnerability are hardest for me?
  • How can I make that interaction go better next time?
  • Who on my team do I not know very well?
  • Do I model vulnerability as much as I reward it?

By consistently rewarding acts of vulnerability, leaders can create a culture of psychological safety that fosters trust, openness, and innovation.

Is your vulnerability being rewarded?
Are you rewarding or punishing vulnerability?

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Why work with the Safety Collaborations Team

Safety Collaborations Team - Nuala, Karin and Catrina

We are passionate about helping people change the way they think about Safety. Embracing fruitful collaboration is how we support your culture of safety, driving your business and people's success.

We offer award-winning virtual and in-person programmes with exceptional coaches that make your workforce safer, which means a strong return on investment, decreased incidents and reduced costs.

The legacy we leave behind is people doing the right thing and having the right conversations around safety, meeting team goals and enhancing team success.

We have over 30 years of experience across industries and geographic locations, dedicated to providing cost-effective solutions for the businesses we work with.

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