There is a lot of discussion right now about 'Psychological Safety' - the latest buzz word (again).  Unfortunately, there is significant misunderstanding and misinterpretation of this concept of 'Psychological Safety', which is doing more harm than good.  In particular, there is a misconception that Psychological Safety means that people shouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable and shouldn't experience negative emotions.  As a Psychologist, having worked with individuals, teams and organisations for over 20 years, this view of psychological safety in my experience creates significantly more long term distress and negative impact for both the individuals and the organisation.

Let's first challenge this idea that '(Psychological) Safety = no discomfort and no negative emotion'.  What makes the safest place to work: a place where people FEEL safe OR a place where people FEEL unsafe? An interesting and challenging question.  The truth is that where people feel safe they become complacent, stop thinking, stop paying attention to the things that can hurt them and others, and this becomes the most dangerous place to work.  The safest place to work is where people feel unsafe i.e. a level of anxiety, that then drives awareness, conscious choices, better decisions and safer behaviour for themselves and others. In other words, when I feel unsafe it drives a safer place to work i.e. Experiencing a level of discomfort or negative emotion drives improved performance and better behaviours.

There is a difference between IS safe and FEELS safe. 

What this means is that we need to aim for an environment and culture that IS Psychologically Safe (even though it may FEEL unsafe at times i.e. Uncomfortable or eliciting negative emotions).

An environment that IS Psychologically Safe:

  • Establishes agreed practices and standards where everyone has permission to hold each and every other person accountable to the agreed practice and standard. 
  • Cultivates a culture that allows people to be vulnerable and share their flaws and mistakes without fear of unjust judgement or consequence. 
  • Has a collective expectation that taking a risk , challenging status quo, asking for support, working through an error will be uncomfortable, and that people will be encouraged and supported through that discomfort.
  • Has an embedded feedback culture that provides both positive and negative feedback (in separate conversations NOT the feedback sandwich) that is clear, specific and with the intention of growth and improvement.
  • Seeks to learn at every opportunity and has improvement as an embedded value.
  • Is prepared to experiment and take calculated risks with the understanding that is might fail, and embraces failure.
  • Explores conflict and allows for rigorous and even emotional debate to work towards resolution building the confidence that disagreement can be resolved.
  • Accepts that feeling uncomfortable, experiencing constructive levels of negative emotion, and being stretched outside of our comfort zone is a requirement for reaching sustainable high performance.
  • Where speaking up and verbalising your opinion is expected and respected, and where we listen to understand.
  • Cultivates a culture that encourages people to set boundaries and where "No" is an acceptable response.

Psychologically Safe Environment does not mean:

  • Not giving negative feedback (only providing positive feedback).
  • Not managing poor performance
  • Not holding someone to account to the agreed standards and behaviour
  • Not speaking up for fear of upsetting someone

If your organisation is wanting to embed Psychological Safety as part of how they work, then I strongly recommend that the organisation examines their definition of psychological safety.  Furthermore, there needs to be clarity on the pathway to reaching a culture of psychological safety and an education for both leaders and team members on how to implement psychological safety in their daily work and interactions.

What we do know from the research is that organisations that are able to implement both a culture of accountability as well as an environment& culture of psychological safety have employees and leaders who are more engaged, have higher levels of well-being, are safer, and demonstrate higher levels of sustainable effort and performance.

There is no doubt that when we establish an environment, whether it be in a relationship, our home, in a team, or in the workplace, that is psychologically safe (i.e. where we can be our authentic selves, be vulnerable, and demonstrate self-awareness without unjust judgement or negative consequences) along with a culture of accountability (i.e. Feeling accountable to meet agreed expectations) that we enable people to bring and be their best selves. 

Enabling people to be their best self is what we need to work toward personally, as a team member, as a leader and as an organisation.

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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