What Leaders Often Get Wrong About Psychological Safety

October 6, 2022
5 min

Mathison's head of DEI training shares insights based on interactions over the past 18 years with many industries, companies and locations:

Even though it’s exciting that we’ve arrived at a time when doing the right thing has become trendy in workplaces, most of us know that it’s only the beginning. As we throw around buzz words like: inclusion, belonging, full self to work, hybrid, it’s okay to not be okay, listening sessions, etc. - we rarely know what these things look like in practice and/or how we’ll feel along the journey there. An incredibly popular phrase in the mix right now is, of course, psychological safety; as leaders, we nod our heads in agreement whenever the phrase is mentioned. We create initiatives to encourage it, we amp up the marketing of our wellness benefits, and we engage in many other well-meaning efforts related to it. But the reality is most leaders are not aware of some key points of understanding that need to be present in order to achieve it. Throughout the entirety of my career, I’ve seen many examples of people who create psychological safety powerfully and lastingly - and I’ve seen many attempts that have failed without the leader understanding why. Luckily, we can learn this together.

Three things you’re probably getting wrong about creating psychological safety as a leader in the workplace:

  1. Psychological safety is built most powerfully in small moments, not big moments.
    When hard moments hit, too often leaders spend the bulk of their time and energy trying to strategize big messages. (i.e. What stance will we take? How do we tie this to our values? Who should the message come from?) Certainly there is a time and place to ask these questions (shout-out to all the incredible communications professionals out there); but leaders could build the most impactful psychological safety by directly talking to and listening to their people - even when they don’t know what to say. This can look like: “Before we jump into business, I wanted to acknowledge the events in the news today. I don’t exactly know what to say, but I imagine many of you are hurting - and I want to name that. If anyone would like to say something, that matters more than our to-do lists right now.” And when people take you up on the offer, it’s okay to reply simply with validation, not fixing: “I hear you.” “That is valid.” “Thank you for trusting us to share that.” Brené Brown uses the analogy of a slowly-building marble jar in how we build trust between humans - you’ll notice the suggestions here yield many more marbles than the letter you spent hours writing for social media, for a mass email, or for the intranet.

  2. It may not feel good to you, once your people finally feel psychologically safe.
    At Mathison, we talk a lot about Timothy R. Clark’s four stages of psychological safety. The most advanced stage is called “challenger safety;” which means -  if you’ve done a good job establishing psychological safety on your team - your people may be challenging you loudly and often. As humans, we don’t love that feeling, so it will take some getting used to; but remember, it’s a good thing if it’s happening! In fact, I share that regularly when I run training sessions around calling people in / calling out: if someone is taking the time and energy to educate you on a way you’re causing harm, misunderstanding, or being oblivious - they’re basically telling you they believe you’re capable of change and they feel safe to speak up with you. It makes sense in theory, but in practice it can feel like conflict: being disagreed with in public meetings, having already established rules and processes questioned, or even the expression of intense emotions in the workplace. That is all possible, probable, and potentially long overdue. One of the most powerful things we can do as leaders is practice listening, being non-defensive, and asking questions to better understand others - even when we don’t like what we’re hearing or how we’re feeling. Here’s where safety matters for you, too: you will need to let your own brain and body know you’re safe to accomplish all this, until it becomes muscle memory. Which leads us to…
  1. Your people are waiting for you to show them.
    The tough reality is: your people will not believe you want them to feel psychologically safe until you show them you mean it with your behaviors, and the behaviors aren’t easy. You'll need to show openness when they challenge you, even though your brain's automatic response may naturally be to explain or defend. You also may need to go first in sharing vulnerable things - like what you’re struggling with, are scared of, or are ashamed of. You may need to unexpectedly make time for a hard conversation when your brain is screaming at you that there is zero extra time. And if you’re like most organizations that struggle with representation at high levels of leadership - you may need to acknowledge your privilege around things you don’t understand. What that can look like: “I realize many of you are struggling with our new return-to-office policy, and I realize it’s hard to hear me supporting it - when the reality is, I have an office door and you do not. Let’s talk about the types of focus work we all do in our roles and brainstorm solutions - including how we might share my office.” or “In thinking about our microaggressions training that’s coming up, I wanted to acknowledge how differently we may each feel about that word. It feels important that I own my recent realization that it’s more of a neutral word to me than maybe some of you - especially as I think about my societally-given privilege. To the extent you feel comfortable, I welcome you to speak up whenever it seems I’m being insensitive on the topic; I commit to being non-defensive and grateful, if you do.”  To quote Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The better we understand how identities and power work together from one context to another, the less likely our movements for change are to fracture.” Surely psychological safety is a movement of change.

The good news: investing in psychological safety pays off…

As difficult as the above concepts may be in action, the good news is they pay off in a myriad of ways. In a recent panel event on psychological safety, my co-panelists Chéla Gage & Amaya Albin both shared critically important benefits of workplaces with psychological safety: retention, innovation, and creativity - to name a few. Additionally, I’ve learned through trauma-informed education that increases in workplace psychological safety result in a decrease in accidents / an increase in physical safety. The list of benefits is ever-evolving and expanding, the more environments see this consistently grown.

Ways to grow your capacity to create environments with psychological safety

  • Practice matching your words to your actions - and positively reinforce people who point out gaps and inconsistencies. When we routinely and publicly demonstrate that people won’t be punished for speaking up (no matter who they are), you’ll see the four stages of psychological safety manifest.
  • Consider how your seemingly unimportant daily actions are interrelated and impactful. In a recent podcast, host Robert Woods asked the featured guest Jen Fry to share on this - and she listed many powerful ways managers are accidentally undermining psychological safety in their day-to-day - and how it can show up afterwards. She also gets into how conflict style plays a role, too. Plan to take notes while you listen, to capture all the gems in this episode. 
  • Make time and space, especially when it doesn’t feel like that’s an option. Busy and stressful times are when psychological safety is the most important - so people can own up to mistakes, ask questions, and share what blockades are a reality for them to do their best work. In the aforementioned panel event, Chéla Gage shared an idea to hold DEI office hours when people can drop in as needed to share what's on their hearts and minds.
  • Let your people help shape their environment. It can be easy to picture the solutions for everything, but when we do that in a vacuum, it doesn’t end up helping the people it’s intended to help. Amaya Albin shared a powerful example from her space where employees were given choices of how to respond to issues of injustice: have safe spaces at work to share, have the option to not go to work if that's the best way to take care of yourself that day, etc. This is a best practice always: let people have agency in anything you want them to be part of.
  • Listen to your people, especially the ones who don’t have a seat at the table. While this absolutely applies to underrepresented employees, it also applies to certain roles and departments (like trainers, for example!) - and areas with less organizational privilege, like individual contributors, operational folks, administrative folks, non-headquartered folks, etc. 

If this feels overwhelming, remind yourself that it’s an investment. If you were to write down all your business goals and reflect, you’d be hard pressed to find one that wouldn’t be better achieved without an increase in psychological safety. We do better work when we feel safe. I’ll end with another Brené Brown reference - in her book Dare to Lead she says, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” 

It’s not just the right thing to do - it’s literally our jobs as leaders: to be in service to the complexities of the humans around us.

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