Do you feel psychologically safe at work?

Fortunately, being physically safe is something most of us now take as a given at work in 2023. But psychological safety is a different and very important thing. It can be thought of as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” It isn’t something you will necessarily find out about until you work in a company, but it is massively important to how people behave in an organisation. If people feel able to make mistakes and learn from them and feel able to make suggestions without fear of the consequences it opens up a whole world of possibilities. The recent whistleblower cases in the NHS around maternity care where mothers and babies have died or had serious medical issues as a result of poor care, have shown the absolute worst case scenarios of when people are unable to speak up.

Feeling safe also impacts creativity. I heard a talk recently around the relationship between neuroscience and psychological safety. The speaker got us to do an exercise where we had to think of a colour, or a piece of furniture. The idea of the exercise was to demonstrate that when you don’t feel psychologically safe it dampens creativity, everyone plays safe. It makes sense when you think about it. Having a range of ideas instead of one or two controlling minds gives organisations such an advantage. But what about if you haven’t got it in your workplace.

If you are a leader there are things you can do to help create psychological safety for your team

  • Create structure in your meetings that allow everyone to contribute. Having an agenda in advance, enables those who like to reflect and prepare, to contribute.
  • Consider how you generate ideas, using techniques such as ideas on post-its can allow everyone a say. We have all been in meetings where a couple of people dominate the discussion, but this doesn’t enable contributions from everyone in the team.
  • Don’t allow strong characters to dominate the agenda. Ask for the views of others if they haven’t spoken.
  • Deal with any individuals who put others down in meetings, in private and on a one-to-one basis. They may not understand the impact they are having on the team.
  • Be very careful not to dismiss ideas without hearing them out, it will put people off contributing. One technique that is taught by Positive Intelligence founder Shirzad Chamine is called “yes and”. It is a very simple concept when generating ideas, so whenever an idea is presented the next person to speak then starts their point by saying what they like about the previous idea. So even if you think it is the worst idea you have ever heard you still find something you like about it. For example, someone says “I think we should give all employees free meals for a year”, the person going next may well think that is totally unaffordable but instead they say “yes, and what I like about that idea is the concept of giving something back to our employees”. So it enables you to build on the previous point and generates a positive atmosphere while collecting ideas. Of course, the ideas will still need evaluating but this can be done with criteria rather than gut feel.
  • Choose your reaction. When we are busy and under pressure and someone utters the words “have you got 5 minutes?” your heart can sink and you can be irritated, but making sure you make time for every team member to talk to you regularly on a one to one basis gives a massive opportunity for you to listen and find out their concerns. This creates safety for the employee and gives you the chance to understand what is really going on in your team and pick up problems and risks before they get out of hand.
  • Being vulnerable yourself. This doesn’t mean over-sharing but sharing some of your concerns and the things you find a challenge helps other people to see that you aren’t perfect and makes them feel more able to be themselves.

But what if you don’t feel that psychological safety yourself. As an individual there are some things you can do to protect and create psychological safety for yourself.

  • Boundaries are important in psychological safety. If you put boundaries in place that work for you, you have a much better chance of controlling outside influences and pressures on you.
  • Make sure you have outlets in your day to help you cope, taking breaks, whether it is a walk, a drink in the quiet, or a change of scene, or taking a break from back to back meetings will help you think more effectively and be better able to deal with the challenges you face.
  • Get 1:1 time in with your own manager, understanding expectations and having good communication with your boss really helps avoid worries about performance and organisational priorities.
  • Having good communication channels with your team and your manager can help avoid unnecessary ad-hoc calls and meetings.

If you don’t feel safe at work with such measures in place, then it might be time to think about leaving. Everyone should feel safe at work, mentally and physically.

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