6 Ways To Create Psychological Safety
Great managers make you feel safe.
Image by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Great managers make you feel safe. When you are safe, you feel comfortable.
A comfortable working environment ensures good collaboration, honesty, and appreciation. Creating such conditions should be the top priority of every manager and every company.
What is psychological safety? The term itself has been around since the 1960s. First organizational theorists like Edgar Schein, started to research organizational challenges. Still today it is considered one of the most important factors for teamwork, learning, and risk and change acceptance.
Now, what is the magic behind it? Psychological safety is a feeling of being safe. You feel accepted and respected. But not only. You are also open to risk and go the extra mile.
You are not afraid of disagreeing or asking questions. Moreover, you can be yourself as the environment embraces diversity and honors inclusion. We can think about the psychological safety climate within a team or in a company.
What happens when people don’t feel safe at work? What would you do if you don’t feel safe? You would most likely try to escape, run away from the source of fear.
It is only a natural reaction. When you experience something unpleasant, you try to switch to something more pleasant. In a work environment, you sometimes cannot leave a meeting or cancel a call in the middle of it.
If someone is shouting at you, disagreeing with you, or blaming you for problems, you don’t feel well. Your adrenalin levels skyrocket, and you are ready to attack back or disappear.
As a manager, you need to learn to control different situations. You will be often in a position of bringing bad news or communicating changes. You need to prepare for negative emotions.
So, try to master psychological safety rules. All is about creating conditions and sensitive communication. You need to train your eye in seeing that someone is about to run away or trying to attack back. Be mindful of a toxic environment and cut its resources.
Every situation is different and needs a different reaction. Some strategies allow you to control your private or group meeting. Onboard these communication strategies:
1. Transparent communication Nothing can be worse than lying to your team. Never do that. You always need to be fair, open, and honest with them.
Even if the situation is difficult (e.g., a colleague is fired, business results are not good, a project scope must change, the office is being moved to a new location, etc.). Prepare yourself for possible scenarios.
How your team members can react? How do you wish to communicate?
When I decided to leave my manager position, I didn’t want to announce my plans publicly at all-staff meetings or team meetings. That would create a panic. Instead, I chose to speak with each team member and explain my decision. This way, I was able to answer questions and tackle fear of the future.
2. Give people time and space Some news is difficult to digest. Respect that. You have to be patient when you see that after you announce something your team is shocked. Kill the meeting and revisit the topic on a different one. Give them time to prepare for it. Let them explore possible resolutions and conclusions.
One-half of my team was working remotely. Yet, during the company restructuring, it was decided that this part of the team would be disbanded. It was a pure cost-based decision.
When managers announced it to people, they were shocked, completely hijacked by their feelings. The leader mentioned that individual meetings would follow. At that point, the announcement meeting ended. As much as this was disappointing, we needed to keep on working.
So, when the first wave of emotions settled, the discussions continued. It took a few days though.
3. Handle emotions, stick to the facts Emotions are a fuel of communication. Yet, often they are inhabiting purposeful collaboration.
Handle your emotions as you must handle your team member’s emotions. Conversations can get heated with you or with them.
But facts should stay clear. Is the solution good or bad? Based on what facts? If someone feels it is good or bad? They can work with intuition, but not with the actual reality. Delegate tasks to cover the topic if you must.
You should reflect on your feelings. You might be angry, or ecstatic. Not everyone will share that with you. So, mind your feelings to make correct decisions based on facts, not based on what you like. The business was booming.
My company acquired new projects and assigned them to my team. But, I didn’t feel it was right for us to work on them as we were already busy. I felt annoyed and not comfortable presenting this news to my team. Nonetheless, it must have been done.
Thus, I had to filter my opinions and cascade this news to my team. The way I did it was that I told them I knew were busy, but, we got this opportunity to work on it. I promised to support them as much as I could. We were all in one boat. Regardless of position.
The simplicity was in the fact, that the company paid us for project work, and we got projects. So, we had to work them out and schedule plans as a group to mind the capacity. If we stayed annoyed as a group thanks to my poor communication, we would have not been productive and moved on anywhere.
4. Apologize It is difficult to apologize. Especially, if you were convinced you were right. No. As a manager, you need to build an atmosphere in which people are not afraid of apologizing and acknowledging mistakes. After all, everything is a learning opportunity.
I don’t know everything. Although I need to make decisions. I had two options over how to lead a finance issue.
The project manager suggested one solution, yet, I decided on the other. I was wrong. I had to come to her and sincerely apologize for not listening to her. There are never enough opportunities to either praise or apologize at work.
5. Be flexible Any meeting should have an agenda. But, that’s not always working. If you are stuck on some topic and discussion gets all over the place. You might need to cut it off.
A lot of meetings from my experience end up in vain as there is no solution. We often go into too many details with one and won’t manage the other, a lot of people have ideas and the time is short or similar.
You must be flexible and find the right time to move on or to stop the meeting and move it to another day.
Take ownership over the situation and don’t let people argue with each other. Always ensure respectful communication. Even if it means you have to have a series of meetings to solve one business case.
A big problem is when someone steals your meeting. These meeting hackers occur from time to time. Watch out for them! I had a colleague who was always commenting on presentations. Sometimes fun, sometimes not. He periodically tried to hack meetings by diverting conversations to unrelated topics. During presentations, they hated him for being loud and stealing their thunder. So, I led a training about how to deal with disruptions during meetings and how to handle frustration while public speaking. Flexibility was key.
So, we learned to flip such interruptions into a joke, if necessary made colleagues silent, and continued a discussion.
6. Listen before you speak Listening is the most important. Listen to how people speak to you. Listen to their complaints, their wins, and their problems. If they share these with you, you are on a good way to build a psychologically safe atmosphere. So, don’t underestimate moments when people reply, ‘I am fine, everything is fine.’ When you ask them how they are doing. Dig deeper. See what is happening under their facade.
Identify a problem in its beginning before it grows over your head. As a manager, try to be one step ahead and track conditions in your team. By listening to how people speak to each other, you can undercover potential problems of disrespect and competition. Negative values can destroy psychological safety. If your colleagues make fun of each other and genuinely bully one of them, then you have a problem.
One great example is a rotating team meeting chair. If you are not a leader of the meeting, you can watch how other people lead and talk together. I did it. I noticed an interesting fact — one colleague was always complaining, another was always silent, one was a clown in the meeting and the last one had better ideas than the others.
Thanks to that, I could work with each of them on their ‘thing’ to make their communication more professional. By knowing how they worked and communicated I gained their trust and respect for my feedback.
Final thought You can destroy a psychologically safe atmosphere easily. When you are not honest, you tell lies, you have a closed mindset when you are selfish or don’t listen to your colleagues. So, be mindful to try to keep your trust high.
Psychological safety is an important ingredient in your management cookbook. It allows you to work with people and communicate without hesitation.
Don’t be afraid of canceling the meeting if you are not ready for it. You can stop a meeting at any point when you feel it is not going anywhere or that you or your team needs to think and digest things first.
You can always go back and seek solutions when you are not steered by your positive or negative emotions. Your priority should be always to create an atmosphere in which people feel safe.
Interesting books about the topic of psychological safety: Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth Clark R. T. (2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation