I teach leadership for a global corporation that starts each day with a “Safety Moment.” The exercise is designed to decrease physical accidents. When I try to teach these leaders to engage in conversations that might trigger emotions and prompt opinions contrary to their own, they claim a lack of time and value. Leaders often don’t connect the need for psychological safety to physical safety.
Dr. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard business professor, says. “Psychological safety describes the individuals’ perceptions about the consequences of interpersonal risk in their work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as by asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea.”
Since the brain’s primary purpose is to protect, it will filter what people say or stop them from speaking if there is any indication—real or not—that they will be embarrassed or hurt. This is an automatic response that happens before logic can assess the situation. Most people will justify their silence or negative reactions.
Why is Psychological Safety Important to Business Success?
I occasionally co-teach classes with colleagues. When I feel mutual respect with my partner, the experience is joyful and participant evaluations are high. When my partner gives me advice with little or no praise and steps in to “help” without asking, the evaluations are mediocre no matter how well I know the material and tell myself to accept the offering.
My experience is common. Feeling safe increases a person’s ability to engage in creative work. Other studies show when employees feel psychologically protected, they demonstrate greater job satisfaction, openness to learn, improved performance and willingness help others out.
One research project with 5,600 people across 77 organizations found the ability of a leader “to understand people’s motivators, hopes, and difficulties and to create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be” has the greatest correlation with profitability and productivity. Empathy and compassion are good for business.
When people don’t feel psychologically safe, they perceive workplace conditions as ambiguous and unpredictable, like alcoholic parents. They feel afraid, discouraged or emotionally numb. Their self-worth and confidence drops, resulting in low job satisfaction and productivity, and more stress-related illnesses, turnover, conflicts and accidents. Psychological safety affects physical safety.
If you survey your employees on how they feel about their work, consider including these questions:
Do I feel I can express my thoughts without being judged?
Do I believe I can talk about how I feel?
Do I feel valued for who I am, not just the goals I cross off my list?
How Do Leaders Create Psychological Safety?
Actively encourage people to ask questions, offer ideas, build on mistakes, and comfortably disagree with you, being open to being changed by what they offer.
But words aren’t enough. You can’t just tell people they should trust you or there is nothing to fear. They may have been judged, embarrassed, or retaliated against in the past. Never assume trust; you need to consciously build it with every relationship.
The Frame of Mind Needed for Psychological Safety
For people to feel you are sincerely open to them, let your ego fade into the background. Notice when a judgment creeps in, when you are formulating your answer instead of listening, and when your muscles tighten up with impatience or resistance.
- Take clues from your body. Do you hold irritation in your stomach, shoulders, or jaw? When you are anxious, does your heart beat faster and the back of your neck heat up? Create the habit of awareness by setting your phone alarm to go off three times a day in the next two weeks to trigger you to ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Click here for an emotional inventory to help determine your emotional states.
- Choose how you want to feel. If you want people to feel curious, calm, or hopeful, shift to feeling this emotion yourself. Breathe and feel your chosen emotion before you enter the room. Use this as your anchor word to reset your emotions during your conversations.
- Assess your level of respect. Being treated with respect has shown to be the strongest predictor of positive feelings. What do you appreciate about these people? Recall good acts or intentions to shift back to respect.
- Determine what people need from you. Do they need to know it is okay to share ideas not fully fleshed out? Do they need you to encourage them to take a risk? What can you say to show you understand them emotionally in addition to hearing their ideas?
Also, according to recent research in therapeutic presence, people will feel safer and more comfortable with you when you listen to them with an open mind, heart, and gut.
You can find a quick exercise for opening the three processing centers of your nervous system—head, heart, and gut—on this page, taken from the book, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.
Start each day with a Psychological Safety Moment so everyone feels free to thrive.
If you would like to talk about leadership skills training and coaching focused on improving emotional connection and creating psychological safety, please reach out to me at: https://outsmartyourbrain.com/contact/