Psychological Safety Should Not be an Afterthought: What it is, Why it Matters
In a March 2021 New York Times article, writer Ruchika Tulshyan defined psychological safety as “the belief that you can take risks and put forward ideas without facing ridicule or retaliation.”
So much has been said about the importance of psychological safety. As leaders, how does one create psychologically safe workplaces teams and cultures? And where there’s a leadership vacuum or simply a bad work environment, how can individuals preserve or bolster their own psychological safety?
How Leaders Can Create Psychological Safety
Demonstrate Workplace Inclusion
Putting forward a new idea requires taking a risk; taking chances requires guts. No one wants to take chances while facing disrespect, exclusion, dehumanization, ridicule or retaliation. Unfortunately, however, there are still workplaces where certain people are treated inhumanely and in a manner that would be deemed unacceptable for a dog or cat.
Anyone old enough to work can recognize cruelty so we really need to get better at implementing zero-tolerance policies for these counterproductive workplace behaviours – and following them.
Stop Tolerating Harassment/Bullying
Fair-minded people appreciate that no one can work productively while experiencing harassment or bullying. Someone experiencing harassment or bullying lacks the peace of mind to focus on their work. In addition to a moral impertative, there’s a practical imperative. Tolerating workplace bullies is expensive as Adam Grant demonstrates in this podcast episode about The Office Without A**holes.
The concept of being trauma-informed is starting to gain traction. Someone who works in an environment where they are excluded, undermined, or dehumanized because of their sexual orientation, skin colour, Indigeneity, religion or other factors is experiencing repeated trauma.
Likewise, there’s growing awareness that working in an organization where one is subjected to harassment or bullying is also traumatic. These experiences are sometimes referred to as “small t” traumas, but when you chain enough small traumas together, their impact can be the same as “big T” traumas associated with a catastrophic physical accident, life-threatening illness, assault, or natural disaster.
For a deeper discussion on trauma, read What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing or listen to this podcast episode with Brene Brown that captures the basics.
Be an ally to those who may be excluded. At school, children now learn about bullying and the importance of acting as effective bystanders who will support others who are being mistreated. In some schools, they call this being an “upstander;” these same behaviours are consistent with allyship. I’ve written a two-part blog on allyship: read Part One here and Part Two here.
Putting It All Together
When leaders create a workplace that is inclusive, no bullying or harassment is tolerated, and there’s meaningful allyship, psychological safety is possible and even likely. Morally, this is the obvious choice and direction.
Practically speaking, there’s also an upside. Ultimately, when employees have adequate psychological safety, they can focus on the work rather than being preoccupied with self-protection and basic survival. The research suggests that a staggering majority of employees from various groups are funneling energy into self-protection and covering up aspects of themselves that they know are unwelcome at work.
For Employees: Reclaiming Psychological Safety
Understand, Set and Enforce Boundaries
Interactions that leave us feeling bad or ruminating negatively on the interaction is a signal that someone has violated our boundaries.
Setting boundaries is a skill that can be learned at any age or stage of life. Teachers, health care professionals, religious leaders and therapists are taught about boundaries during their training. Often the rest of us don’t learn about boundaries explicitly – but they are still relevant as boundary violations hurt our psychological safety.
My intention is not to blame victims but rather to remind readers that maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial for maintaining psychological safety. For further reading on boundaries, I encourage you to browse through my blog and read other articles that discuss workplace boundaries.
Work in an Organization with a Good Culture
Few people would knowingly eat at an establishment that has received a low or failing grade for health and sanitation from its local health department. Similarly, if a tattoo parlor or nail salon has a history of making people sick, we’re not likely to take a chance there either.
For the most part, there are no “sanctioned” organizations that audit workplaces for culture, or search for the presence of trauma-inducing bullying, harassment, discrimination, etc. But, when employees are feeling the sting of these problematic workplace behaviours, I believe they owe it to themselves (and the people who care about them) to find ways to minimize the negative impact of these counterproductive workplace behaviours. Often this means lining up a new opportunity in an organization that has a healthier organizational climate. During the job search, check sources like Glassdoor, Inside Voices and online communities. Learn everything you can and make an informed decision before you leap.
Remote and hybrid work has been a significant silver lining of the pandemic. A surprisingly high number of people learned that by working remotely, they could improve their sense of psychological safety. Many of those people are making the best out of hybrid work environments or anticipating returning to hybrid work instead of being in the physical office on a full-time basis. For more on certain employees’ preference for remote or hybrid work because of a lack of workplace inclusion, read or listen to Inadequate Inclusion – A Barrier to Returning to Work.
The mental health toll of the pandemic has been heavy. Mental health professionals have been predicting a mental health tsunami since fall 2020. Protect yourself by prioritizing your wellness as an employee, and if you’re a leader, do your best to protect the wellness of your staff.
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