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What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished, criticised, undermined or diminished for offering an opinion or an idea, pointing to an error that’s been made or will be made if something doesn’t change, asking for help, or speaking up in some other way.

 

 

 

Feeling unsafe

Feeling psychologically unsafe (and note: feeling unsafe doesn’t mean you actually are unsafe, but the feeling will dominate the facts) evokes a range of emotions and behaviours: anxiety, lack of trust, loss of motivation, indecisiveness, reticence, withdrawal and loss of engagement, to name but a few.  It’s bad news for a team or an organisation.

 

Tom’s story

Tom (not his real name) was a highly accomplished leader, and, seeking to advance his career, he took a new role in a bigger organisation. His hope was that he would develop a more fulfilling work life and would achieve career progression on a larger scale.

However, once in the new role, he discovered that it – and especially working relationships – felt much more precarious than he had anticipated, and that the career progression he had sought and expected wasn’t either clear or assured.  The opposite, in fact: despite being more than competent and capable, his sense was that behaviours in his working environment (including what he experienced as exclusively negative comments and criticisms from his line manager) suggested that not only was underperforming, but also that his role and contribution had no longevity.

He found these doubts and fears significantly unsettling, disappointing and worrying: he had invested emotionally and family-wise in the job move, and was beginning to question whether it had been wise. He was missing the trusted relationships that he had had in his previous organisation.

 

Enabling greater psychological safety

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson’s globally-recognised and ground-breaking work in The Fearless Organization brings insight to the experience and realisation of psychological safety, and allows it to be measured.  She identifies four domains: inclusion and diversity, willingness to help, attitude to risk and failure, and open conversation.  That measurement in a team can be debriefed, and the behavioural and attitudinal sources of the scores explored through facilitation that supports teams to capitalise on it and/or improve it: once a team is facilitated to be aware of the nature and extent of the psychological safety that characterises their day-to-day lives, they can also be facilitated to work together to develop practical plans to increase it – and thus increase creativity, innovation, effectiveness, collaboration, retention and other imperatives for business and organisational success. The leader is key to individuals enabling psychological safety for each other, of course.

 

Creating psychological safety for yourself

A different challenge arises when a team member experiences a lack of psychological safety, and when that very lack makes it impossible to share honestly with anyone, least of all with the leader, who may themselves be the source of the lack of safety. Dialogue feels impossible, and the individual can feel isolated and threatened, not knowing where or how to tread – as in Tom’s case.

How can an individual create more psychological safety for themselves in this kind of situation?  How can they ensure their boundaries are clear and firm, how can they expand what Dr Dan Siegel calls their ‘window of tolerance’ (the range of emotion, thinking and behaviour within which an individual can function well)?

In my experience, there are a number of possible approaches that can help.  All take effort and discipline.

 

Approaches that can help

The capacity to detach, to step back and let go of what might have you hooked, to separate from the triggers, can be invaluable, particularly when role or reputation, stress or wellbeing, feel like they’re at stake. Underpinning this capacity is self-awareness – awareness of what is actually going on somatically in the body, and the emotions and thinking (and judgments) which are thereby evoked, an understanding of the effect of one’s history and of experiences which may have been wounding in the past, and a consciousness of fears, doubts and challenges currently at play both in the immediate relationships involved and with relationships more broadly.

Inherent here is emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own and others’ emotions, and the capacity to manage them in oneself and any impulse to react, as well as the capacity to manage others’ emotions.

Acceptance – agreeing to everything (not with everything) just as it is, because that’s what’s here now, can soothe inner anger and help bring effective cognitive reasoning back into play instead of resentment or anxiety. A mindfulness practice can contribute hugely to learning acceptance.

Linked to acceptance is compassion – for oneself and others.  This, too, can defuse anxiety and help nurture more calm and fewer assumptions, stories and judgments.

Particularly tricky are power imbalances: the force of hierarchy, and the rights it confers explicitly and implicitly, can make it challenging to make one’s voice heard to a boss, for example.  Transactional Analysis ego states may be a starting point: when a boss suggests in tone or words that their report is a naughty child, or their views aren’t valuable enough to be heard, attributing an Adult ego state to both them and oneself – rather than being in a Parent-Child interaction – can help to redress the balance.  It also keeps things more objective and defuses emotional tension.

And finally, support.  The sense of being alone and isolated is corrosive.  Having trusted support at hand from a friend or uninvolved colleague can go a long way to restoring confidence, clarity and tolerance, as well as acknowledging and recognising what is happening so that the individual feels validated.

All these approaches can nurture a sense of greater resource and resourcefulness. And with that comes a greater sense of safety.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Cytonn Photography via Unsplash

Creating psychological safety for yourself

Feeling psychologically unsafe evokes a range of emotions and behaviours: anxiety, lack of trust, loss of motivation, indecisiveness, reticence, withdrawal and loss of engagement, to name but a few. It’s bad news for a team or an organisation. Professor Amy Edmondson’s globally-recognised and ground-breaking work in The Fearless Organization brings insight to the experience and realisation of psychological safety, and allows it to be measured. That measurement in a team can be debriefed, and the behavioural and attitudinal sources of the scores explored through facilitation that supports teams to capitalise on it and/or improve it. A different challenge arises when a team member experiences a lack of psychological safety, and when that very lack makes it impossible to share honestly with anyone, least of all with the leader, who may themselves be the source of the lack of safety. There are a number of possible approaches that can help.

Read more »

Being before doing

It’s so easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole of ‘doing’ in order just to get through every day, forgetting engagement with the bigger picture - what it’s about, where we’re really going, what our guiding principles are, and – so importantly – the interconnecting, systemic and interdependent factors and features that underpin any given situation and that circumscribe inevitable complexity. Coaching clients have ended their programmes realising that they have been able to become more of who they really were, and, as part of the journey, to discover how important ‘being’ was to them. Executive coaching has at its heart the relationship between the client and myself: a relational process. A central part of this relational process is the expansion of awareness beyond thinking alone: moving into a space where both client and I let go of knowing, and experience the emergence of different types of awareness that can bring deep insights on which they can then act. They relate to their situations, their possibilities and their options from new, expanded perspectives. That’s real change – real transformation.

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Being different - and vertical development

We are living in times of unprecedented, and growing, complexity, which it is the leader’s role to manage, negotiate and enable their people to flourish in.   Vertical development recognises that adults develop, from childhood onwards, through stages of cognitive, attitudinal and emotional development which research over decades has shown to be definable and predictable.  As leaders move through the stages they can develop their capacities to deal with com­plexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and volatility.  Children mature, and, as adults, they become capable of doing more complex tasks through further stages of development and new capabilities and perspectives. When leaders have a sense of not fitting in, the reason can be a dislocation between their individual stage of development and the stage of development of their peers, their seniors or the organisational culture as a whole.  The leader at a later stage can feel lonely and isolated, but they may find that they can relate more easily by, on the one hand using concepts and language that will be meaningful to their colleagues at the stage those colleagues are at, and by finding or creating outlets for themselves – new, interesting activities, especially with others at a similar developmental stage.

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The leader's profile

There’s a common perception that the effective leader is the leader with an imposing presence. It can be easy to assume that the expressive, obvious character in the room is also the most obvious leader.  Introverts have a particular challenge when they need to raise their profiles, especially when it comes to developing their careers and strengthening their network connections of stakeholders.  Introverts can find engaging with others in meetings tiring and costly in terms of energy.  There are endless practical tips on raising profile.  However, this ignores an important – and arguably more powerful - area: how to ‘just be’.  To find comfort and safety in the authenticity, ease and truth of being yourself without trying to match anyone else, and without trying to match the imagined expectations or assumptions of other people.  That comfort with being yourself – being happy in your own skin - conveys natural confidence and gravitas.

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Conflict

Conflict is usually costly, painful and damaging.  What are the alternatives?  Some might say compassion.  Others might say community, cohesion, or connection.  Others might opt for peace or safety or kindness.  Or collaboration or cooperation. Conflicts can pass in a moment and leave no apparent trace, or they can leave deep and long-lasting physical, emotional, mental, social, or economic wounds – and at its worst, individual or collective trauma.  Not being in conflict brings a greater chance of wellbeing, of efficiency, of a sense of safety and of organisational or societal health.  Besides needing emotional intelligence, not being in conflict, or defusing conflict, can take humility, a willingness to be vulnerable, and psychological safety.  We can do worse than be guided by Marshal Rosenberg’s principles of non-violent communication, and a shift in thinking and conceptualisation from ‘you and I’ to ‘we’.

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Time as gift or tyranny?

The author of ‘Time Shelter’, Georgi Gospodinov, treats time as a gift to the sufferer of memory loss, rather than the enemy it so often seems to be as a factor in our working lives. This perception of time as something we can have power over contrasts strikingly with the relationship that many leaders and managers – and indeed organisational cultures – seem to have with it: a perception that treats time almost as a ‘thing’, and that sees us as victims of it. Our relationship with time enshrines an intimate connection with achievement. In turn, achievement is connected to a sense of self-worth. We can feel like we are at the mercy of time, in contrast to a sense of emergence, but there is a richness in the emergence, enabling the capacity to perceive, accommodate and integrate a broader perspective. This is important for the task of leadership: to step back and see more interdependencies and more viewpoints.

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Responsibility - and hedgehogs

Imbalance in the way responsibility is used (and not used) in systems of all sorts, including organisations, is large-scale and widespread. Too much responsibility may be assumed (albeit unconsciously). This shows up with leaders who work hard to make sure that everything that needs doing is done, typically to a high standard, no matter whose responsibility it actually is. Inappropriate responsibility may be imposed in childhood, and taken on into work, via an expectation from one or other parent. When leaders fail to take on responsibility that is theirs, it may be that they feel inadequate to the task or may fear failing, and may persuade themselves that by not acting they don’t risk failure. Like the hedgehog who freezes in the middle of the road, they are likely to incur failure rather than avoid it. One of the classic situations in which appropriate responsibility is not given is represented by the micromanaging boss. In all these scenarios, both the team and the leader are weakened and become brittle: they lack resilience and the capacity to learn, develop and change as much as they could, and/or as much as they need to.

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The Right Kind of Wrong

Amy Edmondson's new book 'Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive' explains how we get failure (a potentially invaluable learning opportunity) wrong, and how to get it right, highlighting that the most successful organisational cultures are those in which you can fail openly, without your mistakes being held against you. We're living in turbulent times, and, as Amy Edmondson points out, failure is both more likely than ever – but if it’s the right kind of failure, it’s also more valuable than ever. While most failures in organisations are treated as blameworthy – and there are failures we should definitely work hard to prevent – there are others we should welcome. The latter are the intelligent failures.

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David Hockney, painting, and coaching

I recently had the opportunity to visit the stunning David Hockney exhibition in London (‘David Hockney: Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away)’. It prompted reflection for me both on what it offers to my conceptualisation of coaching and what I can learn that might enhance my clients’ experience of coaching with me. I found the exhibition nourishing, exciting, inspiring, refreshing, perspective-opening and deeply calming. It stimulated my thinking on how I might raise my awareness and challenge myself to look in more depth, and call on more perspectives and insights, with clients. Is there any sense in which I currently satisfy myself with looking partially, on a relatively small scale, or only in one perspective? Besides widening our perspective, the artist also highlights the rewards of looking in every direction at the same time, all the time. He characterises water as illusive, because all the patterns you see are on the surface. If, as coach, I take those patterns as the only patterns, then I’m only seeing part of the person I’m working with, and only some of the influences they’re subject to.

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Who do you think you are?

I often hear leaders characterising themselves and their styles by reference to a set of behaviours, or a set of beliefs or values, or a combination of behaviours and beliefs.  It's in this territory that the idealised self resides. The idealised self is the subject of quest, but probably not what is here now. And yet what is (and who is) now is, in a sense, the most powerful self we can be. However, I don’t often hear leaders describe their style by reference to their sense of who they are when they are truly present to themselves.  Leaders I work with who discover and accept who they are tell me that the self- and system-awareness that is part of the discovery give them a palpable sense of acceptance, self-acceptance, peace and freedom. And from that emerge sustainable awareness of perspective, clear-sightedness about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, compelling and engaging leadership, and capacity to relate healthily, learn and develop self, others and the organisation.

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