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How to use psychological safety to boost productivity and happiness

As a kid, I always avoided the ghost train at funfairs. There was something uncomfortable and unpleasant about those spooky ghosts and skeletons that rattled their bones at you as we skittered past on a tiny track in a darkened space. I disliked the scary sounds and was always the first to leap out of the train cart as soon as we emerged into daylight at the end.

Being afraid, whether of the dark, of large hairy spiders or ghost trains is a signal that we’re in a place of danger. From an evolutionary perspective, this was very useful to keep us out of harm’s way, even if the perceived threat turned out to be fake or a false alarm.

It matters too in determining our state of mind. Fear has an uncanny knack of amplifying what we’re trying to avoid and worse still of reducing our capacity to apply our wonderful logic, analytical thinking and reasoning to gain a fuller perspective of what’s really happening.

Psychological Safety at Work

Imagine, if every day you went to work expecting the worst, anticipating rejection, ridicule or public humiliation. Would you want to stay? Would you be motivated to deliver your best work? Would you have developed chronic neck pain from looking over your shoulder to see who’s coming next to stab you in the back?

It sounds ridiculous and yet for too many people, this IS their reality. There has always been an emphasis on ensuring an individual’s right to physical safety on the job, far less on the need to include psychological safety.

As a GP, I looked after many people, men and women who were subjected to the most toxic of work environments. I often marvelled at their tenacity to keep showing up when many would have fled. But if you have no option because there isn’t another position or employer to move to and there are mouths to feed at home and a mortgage to be paid, you armour up, put in the hours and celebrate surviving one more day.

The problem being this is a massive disservice, firstly to the individual who put their trust in their employer that they would be kept safe and secondly, it’s really bad for business.

Fear is bad for business

When Gallup talks about the low level of engagement in the workplace it’s often in the context that it’s the individual at fault, but is this true?

For example, Suzi, a graduate architect works for a small boutique company where she is afforded a great deal of autonomy, is encouraged to step up to new responsibilities and enjoys a great working relationship with her boss and her colleagues. She loves her job.

Geoff is also a graduate architect working at a small boutique company just down the road from where Suzi works. His boss is a perfectionist who works extremely long hours, expects others to do the same without question, and never provides feedback except when finding fault. The atmosphere is tense and quiet, and Geoff now dreads Monday mornings.

Two people with the same qualification, the same capacity and the same love for what they do. One is flourishing, the other questioning their career choice. Sure, there will always be differences in work ethics and personality, but the bigger question is which business will be performing better?

In her book The Fearless Organisation Professor Amy Edmondson brought psychological safety into sharp focus describing it as

“a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions or ideas…. confident that they won’t be humiliated, ignored or blamed”

At a time where business is highly unusual, it’s imperative that all leaders, whether leading a company, a team or themselves understand why psychological safety is THE single most important factor, (as identified in the Aristotle project run by Google which looked at 180 teams over two years) to create an effective team.

Getting on well with others is something that benefits us all, unless you are a sociopath.

There are a number of models that have been introduced in the psychological safety space. TRAICE is the version I like to use. These are the social cognitive drivers that keep us and others in a place of safety.

Trust

The foundation of all relationships which begins by demonstrating your own trustworthy behaviour that is consistent, transparent and comes from a place of humility. It has to be nurtured carefully, because once trust has been lost, it can be a long slow road to recovery, if at all.

Being in the presence of someone you like, and you consider like you, leads to the release of the bonding molecule oxytocin that facilitates trust and strengthens social connections.

In the presence of trust, we feel secure in the understanding we’re recognised for who we are (regardless of the job descriptor) and we have significance. As R Synder talks about in his book Neuroscience for Organisational Change, our significance is the lens through which we determine all other aspects of our social cognitive behaviour. We really do care what others think about us. A lot!

Relatedness

How well do you know your colleagues? Finding those sometimes invisible threads of common ground can be elusive unless you have the time to find out. One organisation I worked with admitted that the forty or so people in the office were never afforded the time to share a lunch break, let alone a coffee. They were forty individuals who just happened to work in the same room every day and never spoke to each other. What a missed opportunity to share ideas, concerns or to celebrate wins.

The WD-40 company has got relatedness right. The employees speak of ‘belonging’ and being part of a family. When you have that degree of connection, you feel happier and work harder because you’re looking out for your colleagues as well as yourself.

Autonomy

Having just participated in possibly the world’s largest psychological experiment – working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, you may have experienced a newfound freedom in being able to do your work in the way that best suits you, without having to conform to ‘the usual way of doing things.’

If this is true for you, how can you ensure you retain that freedom when it’s your turn to RTW and show up in the office again?

Having the freedom of self-direction is enormously motivating. Do you remember that moment when your parents removed the trainer wheels off your bike and you were off, pedalling furiously to stay upright and relishing the freedom of doing things your own way?

Lack of autonomy as in micromanagement is the quickest route to the nearest exit. It’s soul-destroying and can quickly sap confidence. Choosing your own goals, holding yourself accountable raises morale and happiness and will encourage you to step up with confidence to learn a new skill or solve a problem.

Impartiality

Being treated equally to ensure fairness cuts to the core of why we continue to show up to work each day. A whiff of unfairness is enough to trigger a massive threat response in the brain – enough that it will incite a downing of tools and walking off the job.

A company that is keen to hire and retain its best talent had better be seen to be operating on a level playing field. One way to ensure everyone believes they are being treated fairly is to give everyone a voice in the decision-making process especially when it will have a direct impact on them. Secondly, consistency in the process whether as feedback, layoffs or promotion will always help to reduce the risk of being accused of acting unfairly.

Certainty

The road ahead is paved in uncertainty. This can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, neither of which are conducive for clarity of thought nor good decision making. The human brain is essentially a giant prediction machine, it likes to know what to expect next and while a little surprise is often enjoyable, especially a nice surprise, the shock of that next curveball coming in left of field can derail our capacity to cope with the unexpected change leading to resistance in thought and behaviours, no matter how much explanation we’re given to explain why it’s happening.

Certainty comes from updating any information in a timely manner, repeating any important messages and seeking clarification to ensure everyone has understood what has been shared.

Empathy

An empathetic leader will seek to understand why someone’s performance has slipped rather than making assumptions (that may be entirely wrong) using active listening. This can enable an individual to seek ways to improve, by boosting their confidence and motivation. Empathy shows we are human, and we ‘get’ that sometimes people are doing it tough and will benefit from support rather than being admonished.

Psychological safety isn’t a nice to have. Our social smarts determine the quality and strength of all our relationships and ultimately our success in work and life – which is part of what it takes to develop a thriving mind.

If psychological safety is important to you and your organisation, I’m running a free webinar on this topic on June 17th. Attendance is capped to 100 people, so register your interest here.

All registrants will receive a copy of the recording if you can’t attend the live event.

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jenny@drjennybrockis.com

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