Luke’s mother stood ready to leave the consultation room.
“Thanks so much for looking after Luke today”, she said. Luke had twisted his ankle playing football that Saturday and had been one of many attendees at the emergency department with their various sports-related injuries.
“My pleasure”, I said, “I’m sure you’ll be pleased to get back onto the pitch in a couple of weeks Luke.”
I opened the door to let them leave when Luke’s Mum paused, before speaking.
“I don’t suppose there’s a reason why Luke’s always so thirsty? He’s always got his head in the water fountain, and it’s even worse when he’s been playing sport.”
That was the hand on the door handle moment.
An almost throwaway comment or question at the end of a conversation.
It would have been easy to suggest she take Luke to get that checked out by his GP. The department was horribly busy, and I was mindful of the many other people still waiting to be seen.
But if I’d treated that request for an extra moment of my time as an unnecessary burden in my overbusy day, I would have missed the red flag that something far more significant than an ankle sprain was going on.
That day he and his family went home knowing that Luke had Type One Diabetes.
How often do we treat those “Do you have a moment?” “Can I quickly ask?” “Sorry to interrupt, but…” as a nuisance, a waste of your time, yet another spot fire to put out, taking you away from all that important work that’s waiting to be done?
Studies have shown how being interrupted in our workflow can result in a 23-minute delay before you can get back to “now, where was I?”
Multiply those interruptions and it’s easy to see how you can get caught up with so many distractions and disruptions to your workflow, resulting in you getting to the end of a busy day feeling you’ve got nothing done that you had intended.
Your response at this point could lead you down the path of frustration, self-flagellation or blaming external forces.
What if instead you chose a reframe, and reflected on the good your interactions had for your colleagues?
Rather than being irritated about being asked to attend yet another meeting you know you have nothing to contribute to and fretting about the time wasted that you could be attending to other things on your to-do list, you saw this as an opportunity to tune in and learn a bit more about your colleagues and their thinking?
We’re all busy and your perception might be that the question being asked of you is trivial or superficial leading to your thought response,
“Surely they can work this out for themselves?”
“Why bring this up now when they know I’m in the midst of something really important?”
And even if you don’t say anything, the other person is picking up from your body language your sense of exasperation, frustration, or anger.
The risk is you may miss the real reason for their interruption. But now they are left feeling stupid, regret asking the question and are unlikely to speak up again in the future.
That sliding-doors moment is an opportunity for psychological safety.
Blink and you’ll miss it.
One opportunity lost is a pity. Multiple opportunities lost can result in damaged working relationships, while you remain blind to recognising that your employee’s silence is not confirmation that all is well, and when they hand in their resignation letter, you’re surprised.
Making it safe to speak up.
The Andon cord popularised by the Toyota production line allowed those working on the line to notify the manager if they had noticed a fault or a mistake had been made.
Pulling the cord meant the whole production line would stop until the issue was resolved.
Acting early here meant minor issues or breakages could be resolved quickly before they became major concerns. Every employee recognised pulling the cord was encouraged because it led to fewer costly mistakes being made overall.
What if you saw your interruptions in the same way, to enhance team effectiveness and productivity rather than a nuisance?
How much nicer does it feel to work in an environment where you’re entrusted to do your work but also know it’s OK to ask for extra support or resources when needed.
It’s showing you care.
Psychological safety isn’t just about being nice to people.
In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott talks about the need to care on a personal level and to challenge directly.
Feeling safe to share your true feelings can be daunting but is an essential component to a trusting relationship. It’s not easy to share your insecurities, anxieties, or concerns but the confidence that comes from doing this is frequently the first step to resolving the issue.
Challenging the status quo is the fourth level of psychological safety outlined by Timothy Clark and it’s something that can feel uncomfortable without practice. Here it’s not about being perfect, rather it’s speaking your truth candidly and with compassion.
Learning to speak up takes practice.
As a self-confessed introvert, I always struggled with debates. Deciding to become a public speaker certainly was an almighty big shove right out of my comfort zone.
I was invited to join Rostrum to develop my non-existent public speaking skills. Each week, we would take turns to speak on allocated topics for 2-3 minutes, without any time for preparation, and then receive feedback from the group.
It was certainly a good way to work up a cold sweat and taught me how to think on my feet, but it was the feedback that was gold.
Shared with love, though sometimes excruciating, because who knew I waved my arms around so much I gradually became more confident. My mentors weren’t afraid to be direct, there was no sugar coating of the truth, but they were always there ready to offer advice and support.
In her book, Kim Scott shares seven stages of getting stuff done in a caring way.
We were endowed with two ears. It’s time to listen up because as Robert Biswas Diener Positive psychologist shares, listening is about what you are paying attention to, and what you have noticed. Listening well elevates psychological safety so others feel heard and results in deeper, more meaningful, and more robust conversations.
This is about having time to think. If you’ve ever sat through a conference of wall-to-wall presentations, you’ll know how quickly your brain becomes overloaded with so much new information, there’s no time to reflect or consolidate what you’ve learned.
Scott suggests treating new ideas with a fragile sticker on them so that everyone has the time to consider what this might mean.
If you were ever part of a school debating team, you know how valuable it is to hear different perspectives on a topic and develop greater critical thinking.
Decision-making as an active participatory event where all voices are encouraged to participate enables better and more widely acceptable decisions to be made by the decider.
The decider now must persuade others to follow the decision through their shared vision.
You’ve got collective agreement, now’s the time to implement.
Review of the outcomes and intentional revision enables adjustments, tweaks, and improvements.
A small word that packs a powerful punch.
Because when you care and feel cared about, everything feels easier to manage and the time taken no longer matters.
How does care show up in your workplace?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace-based health consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.