By Graham Williams & Justin Kennedy
Welcome to part 2 of this article on Psychological safety, based on extensive research (in the areas of neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and business science) and practical experience in consulting to workplaces around the world. Here’s our coverage of a complex and important topic in a way that is devoid of flowery, ‘impressive’ language. We started with CLAP which explains the key characteristics of psychological safety. In the last post, we looked at Culture and Leaders. This time, we focus on Attributes and Practices.
Attributes vary greatly by organization, but some common threads in psychologically safe workplaces are civility, respect, inclusion, leveraging the richness of diversity in all of its forms – including gender, age, thinking styles; and facilitating appropriate belonging.
Inclusion entails more than “just” respecting diversity. There’s a saying: “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.”
By contrast, exclusion causes feelings of social pain and distress, rejection, loneliness. Diversity, inclusion and belonging are tied together.
On Abraham Maslow’s famous needs hierarchy, feeling loved and belonging is followed by finding our self-esteem, on the path to self-actualization. Belonging is a primary intrinsic motivation. Published in 1845, Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling is referred to by Clarissa Pinkola Estés as “a psychological and spiritual root story … one that contains a truth so fundamental to human development that without integration of this fact, further progression is shaky”
She illuminates, “… when an individual’s particular kind of soulfulness, which is both instinctual and a spiritual identity, is surrounded by psychic acknowledgement and acceptance, that person feels life and power as never before. Ascertaining one’s own psychic family brings a person vitality and belongingness”. (Estés, C. P. 2008)
As Einstein said: Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
Other attributes of psychologically safe organizations typically include:
• Humility and not pretending or striving towards perfection
• A healthy attitude towards experimentation and learning (including from failure)
• Understanding and developing Growth and Outward mind-sets
• Being prosocial internally and externally, where staff are given latitude to serve customers and stakeholders creatively, free of constraining and unnecessary rules.
• Fun while carrying out the serious business of important work. Viktor Frankl has pointed out that in the concentration camps “humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation”, (Frankl, V. 2006). Fun is a powerful coping mechanism that is also linked to creativity, and to the fostering of secure workplaces. “When laughter is shared, it binds people together and increases happiness and intimacy” (Robinson, L et al. 2019)
The attributes outlined above emerge during our coaching interventions. When you practice certain behaviors and processes you support the establishment of the desired culture, and leadership approach and style. These practices include:
Conversations that count
Non-threatening quality conversations that count – that promote inclusion, equal freedom to speak out, shared learning and accelerating execution. Facilitating relationships are a must in small groups and one-on-one. Neuroscientists totally agree on this. Culturescan is a ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ process that makes use of online surveys, anecdote circles and an immersion process to secure engagement with important topics and issues in organizations. (Culturescan. 2019). Conversations beget engagement, engagement begets high performance. (Smythe M. 2019)
Non-violent, safe communication – especially during conversations around topics where there may be friction. The watchword here is that the conversations are not issue-based, but personal needs – based. Deep respect and appreciation underlie such conversational practices. And listening is a powerful contributor. Those with wounded spirits, fragile egos, low self – esteem and a tendency to castigate themselves may crumble easily and quickly when criticized (irrespective of whether this is direct/ indirect/ blatant/ subtle). People who receive feedback might perceive and feel that they are being shamed and withdraw, or react vehemently. That’s the opposite of safe communication.
Develop a story culture. Story holds enormous potential to facilitate listening, share experiences, establish rapport, forge connection, hold empathy, convey insights, stimulate the imagination, support a prosocial culture. It has many applications: scenarios, conversations, change initiatives, sense-making, presenting complex data, building teams, solving problems, communicating Brand attributes. Story is a part of our DNA. (Williams, G & Haarhoff, D. 2016). In coaching situations story (and imagery, symbol, archetype, metaphor) can be effectively utilized to encourage reframing, active imagination, time-lining, plumbing depths (which may be in the form of dream work, or using midrash (a Jewish method) to wrestle with and uncover underlying truth, explore numerous facets of the same story from different angles and viewpoints. (McKenna, M and Cowan, T. 1997)
Our desire is to bring healing and dramatic performance improvement in organizations, and our hope is that this article lays out the psychological safety framework for you. CLAP serves as a useful memory anchor – as you begin to establish the positive contagion and psychologically safe habits in your own organization.
If you’d like to find out more about our approach and our content when coaching teams and individuals, please be in touch with Williams or Kennedy.