I’m no expert but here’s my thinking
This week I was asked by a colleague if Psychological Safety (in coach development) was important and if so how was it created (thank you Michael Cooke of Sport NI fame for the nudge)…
Without psychological safety I cannot be myself, and being myself (a good version of myself) is far better and more important than being the person the environment expects. I appreciate some may have tension with this and feel the need to conform to the norms of an environment. But the more you distance yourself from who you really are the wider the gap becomes between trust/confidence in yourself and self-inflicted doubt and insecurity…. This leads to anxiety, fragility, worry and indecision.
With the presence of psychological safety we are able to trust in the people and the environment, put ideas forward, pose questions, challenge standard approaches and grow.
Please please don’t ever say the words ‘this is a safe place’. By saying it out loud doesn’t mean it magically appears (its not like abracadabra). Quite the contrary, as those words leave your mouth the room becomes very quickly unsafe. Why? Because the inference of wanting to create this space hints (quite hard) at a desire to get people to share more of themselves than they may well be ready for. Oh, and yes I’ll be honest I have both done this without thinking and experienced the other end of it.
As you land those words, ‘this is a safe place’ you can physically see people withdraw, almost like their body’s are acting out what their minds are thinking. NO thanks…. Can I leave.
I remember vividly the day this was said to me. What made it worse is what followed those words….
“This is a safe place…. you are able to take risks here….”
You have now imposed your desire for me to take risks (that I don’t want to). And please don’t then follow these words with an actual high-risk task!!!
On this occasion (a real event) there was almost a revolt/a mutiny. We had been lulled into a false sense of security, a false safety. We had been softly, softly drawn into an environment of sharing and openness only to be hit with a hi challenge (real challenge) low support activity. This is how you break psychological safety. As a group we stepped away from the experience and began to build metaphorical walls….
So how do you create Psychological Safety
There is no one formula (although some may have you believe so). It starts with hello and builds with how you notice and attend to the micro and macro behaviours/actions during the life of the relationship (with and between people). When things are true and congruent it works, when things are false and incongruent it falls down and miss/distrust creeps in.
From the first point of contact, the first greeting, people are making judgements about how safe it is to be there. What is ok to say and what is not ok. How you will use what is said (for good or evil) and how they will be cared for). Be authentic, don’t play a game, don’t lull people into safety. This is extremely counter productive. Playing the part of a safety creator only to land some heavy hits later or be incongruent with early behaviour only breaks down relationships.
Be consistent, that doesn’t mean be consistently good or consistently compassionate. Be consistently you. Be the person you are and it will enable people to be the person they are. Model positive behaviours and build real relationships, share as you go, share at the rate the relationship requires. Measure your sharing with the feeling of the space – under or over sharing is counter productive (only you will be able to judge this).
You potentially have 3 graduating stages of safety that line up with a graduating level of vulnerability
- Invite people to join the conversation – give a legitimate seat at the table
- Invite people to contribute to the conversation – to offer their thinking
- Invite people to challenge the conversation – to challenge norms ad existing views
At each stage be considerate around how you respond to what is said, watch for those micro and macro behaviours. Learn what these mean (do not assume).
Psychological Safety is not the responsibility of one person, it may be seen as a manager or leaders role to create it, however all those involved in the experience, interactions have responsibility for building, maintaining and holding it. If you have outliers not keen on the level of vulnerability then this will create a crack in the safety bubble (and there are those who will misuse the space/information shared).
Don’t use psychological safety as a weapon or tool for your gain…. Its not up to you to open Pandora’s box, and if you do you may not be able to close it.
- Create this space for your gain – you are messing with peoples lives
- Over play the vulnerability piece – you may not be ready for what comes
- Misuse the space – to learn more than you need to about people
If you would like to explore how to create psychological safety within your environment give me a shout
Kurt Ewald Lindley
Trying to be careful with the safe places I find myself in