Pyschological Safety

‘People are people so why should it be, that you and I get along so awfully?’. These are the opening lyrics of the song, ‘People are People’ by Depeche Mode. If you don’t know who Depeche Mode was, don’t worry, it just means you were not a child of the 80’s. This song popped into my head on my walk this morning as I was thinking about how people seem to be struggling to thrive in their places of work. This observation is subjective I know; however I am basing it on two things I’ve noticed. The first is my experiences as a customer and how disinterested, disengaged and fatigued many service staff seem to be. And how this impacts on my customer experience. I think there is a strong link between the two, because if we’re feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, we really don’t have the energy to engage in a meaningful way with people and eventually we no longer have the capacity to care either.

The second observation on which I base my comment about people struggling is the feedback we as an organisation are getting from our coachees during our one-on-one and group coaching sessions. Our coachees are sharing how they often feel overwhelmed in their roles and are expected to do more than ever before, with fewer resources. This is leading to an increased sense of anxiety and ‘work-dread’, which is lingering long after Monday has gone. When we dig deeper, we are hearing of a sense of isolation, a lack of support and the feeling that we are not really cared about. It’s little wonder then, that people are not thriving at work, in fact, a lot of people are struggling to just survive.

The impact of this struggle is felt organisation-wide with targets being missed, innovation being lacking and  financial performance being affected. On the less tangible side, the impact is more nuanced. People start to withdraw or attack, doing only the bare necessities of their job. The culture may become toxic with fear being the primary motivator for all actions. And as we know from neuroscience, if we are in a state of fear, all we are concerned with is our own survival and we will do anything to ensure it, to the detriment of others and the wider organisation. The bottom line is that when people in an organisation are in survival mode, they do not feel safe – psychologically safe.

Psychological safety is not about ensuring an organisation has a no-bullying policy or providing a safe place to work in. It is also not just about leaders and managers telling their staff that their voices are welcome and/or providing anonymous whistle-blower hotlines. Psychological safety goes far beyond that – it goes all the way to culture and culture is not about what we say and an organisation’s policies but rather it’s about how things are done and how those policies are actually lived. Saying ‘feel free to give me feedback at any time’ and then rejecting it and belittling the person who gave it, is only too common with a number of organisations and people learn very quickly the difference between what we say and what we actually do. In an organisation with high levels of psychological safety, people feel free to speak up and challenge each other, always being mindful of ‘playing the ball and not the person’ however. Accurate and specific feedback up, down and side-ways, given often, is encouraged and not only done during performance reviews. People in psychological safe organisations feel free to ask for help, are happy to collaborate, to disagree with one another – and be disagreed with – and to take risks. They bring their whole vulnerable and courageous selves to work.

To create a psychologically sound organisation takes effort – huge effort – from leadership and management, as they set the ground rules for ‘how things are done around here’. Take the airline industry for example. Flying big lumps of metal filled with hundreds of people around the skies is a high-risk business, however it is also one of the safest – now. Early on in the development of the industry things were not quite as safe and based on this, the powers that be recognised the need to implement a reporting structure whereby anyone, from pilot to passenger, could report an incident or near miss. The report was then analysed to find the root cause of the error and recommendations and actions were taken to ensure this error did not occur again. The key however, to this reporting structure, is that whoever makes the report, regardless of whether or not they are the responsible party, is indemnified against future punitive action. In other words, the airline industry is a psychologically safe industry where the characteristics of openness, accountability and integrity are the norm. By making airline employees feel safe to speak up, the industry as a whole made it safer for everyone to fly.

We can borrow from the airline industry and adapt the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s key themes for reporting as a gateway to building organisations where people feel safe and secure. The five characteristics that are needed are:

  • Willingness:
    • Leadership needs to be willing to create a culture where people feel free to speak up at any time, on any subject, whether it be to flag a risk, or moot an idea.
  • Information:
    • Leadership needs to break down silos and ensure that everyone in the organisation understands their role and how it contributes to the overall success of the company.
  • Flexibility:
    • Leadership needs to create loose chains of command and break down rigid hierarchies, allowing anyone, regardless of role, to talk to anyone else, as an equal.
  • Learning:
    • Leadership needs to create a culture of blame-free learning from all mistakes, from the big ones to the small ones.
  • Accountability:
    • Leadership needs to build a culture where people take their responsibility to speak up and out, very seriously, as they recognise the benefits to themselves, their colleagues and their organisation.

So summing up, creating a psychologically safe environment is not initially easy, but by consistently applying the principles above, an organisation can build an environment of happy people – people who feel valued, heard and bring their best. And happy people will position any organisation to fly high!

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