It was a casual call to see if a friend wanted to meet up for a coffee. She responded by text saying “Sorry, I’m in a bad place right now, I’ll get back to you.” She did a few days later. It turned out she had lost her job for calling out wrongdoing, something she knew should not be ignored.
How often do you hear of whistle-blowers ending up being the one who loses their job, bad-mouthed in public while the perpetrator gets off scot-free, with no repercussion for their bad behaviour, or even gets a promotion? How many whistle-blowers are being asked to sign non-disclosure agreements because the company doesn’t want a stain on its reputation and would rather brush the highlighted issue under the carpet?
It makes me hopping mad when I hear of people being treated badly like this. Whether it manifests as bullying, intimidation or harassment, I simply don’t “get” why some choose to deliberately cause psychological distress or injury, because they can, and too often seemingly are allowed to get away with it.
It reveals a disappointing lack of respect for our fellow humans.
None of us are perfect. All of us make mistakes from time to time.
Owning up to that mistake doesn’t diminish us, it enables us to grow because we can learn mistakes can usually be rectified and others will often seek to help us make restitution to make things right.
When as a child I did something naughty, like push my younger brother off his bike causing him to graze his knee or break one of my Mum’s china ornaments, I would commonly deny all wrongdoing, even when observed doing the wrong thing! Learning to accept responsibility for mistakes and misdemeanours can be uncomfortable, but if we don’t learn that skill as children, little wonder we see grownups covering their tracks, blaming others, running away from the scene of an accident they caused, because they are afraid and see not owning up as OK.
And it’s time to call it out.
Simon Sinek talks about how it is every person’s “right” to love their job. While that sounds great in theory – how does it translate in the toxic work environments some of us have to endure because you hate your job and the people you work with, but there is no plan B because there aren’t any alternative options available?
Before having the right to love my job, how about we address the right for everyone to enjoy greater psychological safety at work first?
What is psychological safety?
First coined by behavioural scientist and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson in 1999 when researching the difference in what separated the best performing teams, she discovered it wasn’t having the smartest people working together, or the lowest number of reported errors. What she did find, counterintuitively, was it was those teams with the highest rates of reported errors. Not because they were sloppy, but because it was safe to speak up and own up to making a mistake early, so it could be quickly rectified, and lessons learned.
As she said, psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
But the importance of this didn’t become better appreciated until the findings of Google’s Aristotle Project that sought to answer the question “what makes a team effective?”.
Of the five key elements revealed, psychological safety turned out to be the number one determinant of how well a team works together.
So, why isn’t it being introduced more broadly?
In my experience in working with different businesses and organisations, there is an ongoing lack of understanding about what psychological safety is, how it can be raised, and sometimes leaders are fearful this is about them being perceived as doing something wrong.
Not necessarily, although turning a blind eye to poor or bad behaviour can never be condoned.
Elevating psychological safety is not a blame seeking exercise, rather it’s an opportunity for an organisation to unleash the true potential of the existing workforce. It’s a competitive advantage waiting to be used.
Enjoying a high level of psychological safety is linked to being a top talent magnet because people have heard yours is a great place to work. It drives collaboration, innovation and performance. More ideas and information are shared and talked about. Robust conversations are held to resolve conflict and difference of opinion because there is no fear of retribution for offering an alternative viewpoint.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? The key is to realise this is about enhancing the workplace experience for everyone, so all team members feel included, listened to and encouraged to speak up and take on new challenges, without fear.
Remember humans are imperfect, fallible and capable of making some really dumb decisions especially when super stressed or under excess pressure. It’s a paradox. Fear of making a mistake, of stuffing up, of being called out for making a mistake, can produce that self-fulfilling prophecy. Observing those times when public figures are being hounded by the media keen to latch onto perceived wrongdoing or a poor turn of phrase because it’s an opportunity to focus on something negative, this too reduces psychological safety because you know that whatever is said, it can be used against them.
How to elevate greater psychological safety at work
While there is no one-size-fits-all because every workplace environment is unique, psychological safety is about:
- Respect for the individual, regardless of job description, pay bracket, age, gender or any other differentiator.
- Encouraging safe and open conversations where everyone is invited and everyone is enabled to speak up and speak out about anything they are concerned about, need help with, want clarification or to suggest a new way of doing. Providing a safe haven for meetings run under ‘Chatham House Rules’ promotes trust.
- Modelling curiosity. When things go wrong and it’s a question of when not if, asking what happened rather than seeking to punish allows the truth to be uncovered more readily. Otherwise, the pain of public humiliation can lead to silence and avoidant behaviour.
- Seeking opinions prior to a meeting, allows you to be better prepared and appreciative of alternative perspectives that challenge your proposal or idea. Here a meaningful conversation can lead to a quicker negotiated outcome rather a walkout or refusal to discuss.
- Listening actively to what is or isn’t being said. Giving your full and undivided attention to someone in this way is a massive gift of respect and builds social cohesion, even though you may hold opposing views.
- Being mindful of the impact your words have on others. Seek feedback, because how else will you know? Have compassion for yourself if others see you in a more negative light, and ask what would make things better?
Team memberships, and all interpersonal relationships wax and wane, meaning creating psychological safety is an ongoing work in progress. It’s not unusual for the level to vary at different times in different circumstances so checking in and reflecting on what’s the current reality is always a good place to start.
Safety at work at a physical and psychological level, is a right every employee is entitled to.
Would you describe your workplace as respectful?
Is your workplace psychologically safe?
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.