Safety first

Psychological safety should be a given in all organisations – staff should feel empowered, able to contribute and interact freely. Unfortunately, research shows that often the opposite is true. And yet it’s easy for leaders to create, encourage and maintain a psychologically safe workplace environment, as Anna Eliatamby explains

The first and most vital step in providing a safe space for your team is to prepare yourself to use a style that is almost laissez-faire, with some boundaries and expectations. Adopting this approach consistently provides the freedom to explore the ways in which people will perform their role. You will need to be prepared to let go of what you want and allow staff to achieve their goals differently.

Explore your current approach, especially in our protocol-driven world, to see how you can adopt this style. Think about what will help you feel more secure in this less direct stance.  Observe how you speak and interact with others. To what extent do you have open conversations rather than issuing instructions and answers? Encourage a freer flow for communication and be willing to say, “I don’t know”.

If you embark on this journey towards true psychological safety, make sure that you convince other executives that this is important and to be modelled. Perhaps ask them to do a similar self-reflection to the one described above. Adoption of psychological safety requires courage and consistency.

Think about and adjust the workflow in and across sections of the organisation. How are the mechanisms such as meetings, email and other communication methods used? Often these are just report-backs with no substantive discussion at the conceptual or practical level. Ask teams to review their mechanisms and provide opportunities for them to learn about deductive and inductive discussions and reasoning. To stop, pause and reflect without feeling the need to fill up the communication space.

Dealing with human error
Humans are fallible, even in the most trusted and safe cultures. Eventually, someone will make a mistake. What matters is how you respond to them. If staff know you will not launch into apportioning blame but allow people to stop, reflect, rectify and learn, then they will do their best. And take good, measured risks knowing that they can come to you with both successes and failures. 

For this to work, you need to stand back and wait so as to help them learn about creative problem solving. To bring Apollo 13 back to Earth, those on the ground had to improvise and create a replacement part. They produced something from what was available in the spacecraft rather than just poring through the manuals.

Incorporate praise into the work culture

Simple gestures can mean so much to staff and will act as motivators. Especially praise honesty, kindness and compassion. Expect decency from all and adherence to ethics and values. Help people think about how they can incorporate ethics and values in their thinking and work. Include this as a key factor and practical exercise in induction. Then have regular open discussions about the use of ethics, values and the inevitable compromise that will occur.

Addressing negativity

Operationalising the tips above will be helpful when it comes to enhancing psychological safety. But the impact will be limited unless you make efforts to address any negativity or toxicity that is present. These are the factors and issues that most leaders avoid or deny, yet they are the ones that impede progress and the permanent incorporation of psychological safety. Toxicity erodes staff and organisations at so many levels and is quite damaging.

Using solid evidence, executives need to adopt a strategic approach to tackling toxicity while promoting the positive. Staff need a culture promoting collective accountability where they feel able to name and discuss negativity to resolve it. We should give those responsible for the negativity the help they need. People who are the targets will also need support. Perhaps develop a code of conduct so that all staff can discuss and use it. If this happens, then there will be progress towards psychological safety.

How people feel about the world and what is happening influences human safety, or its absence. Today there are many contributing factors to people feeling uncertain and stressed because of actions by governments and other regulators, economic uncertainty, worries about climate change and so on. As a leader, it is important to acknowledge this and discuss with staff how they can cope and manage so that they are able to handle that stress. Think about the kind of help they may need. This will facilitate their well-being and aid them in being more willing to take part in psychological safety for themselves, colleagues and the organisation as a whole.

Psychological safety is so very vital and it is well worth building in for your teams – and for the wider society too. Business can model what we need to see in communities.

Anna Eliatamby is the director of Healthy Leadership and co-author of the Decency Journey, a series of seven pocketbooks aimed to help people flourish in their careers and workplaces

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