Organizational Culture

Psychological safety isn't about "unsafe" leaders

Psychological safety is a high-stakes concept. For the individual, it relates to career prospects and how engaged they are at work. For the organization, it represents a significant opportunity for step change improvements in performance and engagement.

When implementing psychological safety programs, several myths often emerge. At large and complex organizations, the most common myths are:

  1. Psychological safety is only leaders’ responsibility
  2. People are psychologically safe or not
  3. Psychological safety is about protecting mental health
  4. Psychological safety comes under the DE&I umbrella

These myths consistently get in the way of engaging key leaders and professionals, among them stakeholders critical to building buy-in and commitment to psychological safety. They can also create new behaviors that undermine constructive work relationships. This article spotlights myths 1 and 2.

Myth 1: Psychological safety is only leaders’ responsibility

In many respects, psychological safety is the outcome of how people act at an organization. Leaders have a significant influence on this. The way they operate, communicate, and make decisions signals the worst behaviours the organization accepts and the best behaviors it rejects. The character of debate and interaction within the senior leadership team (SLT) sets the standard for cooperation across the organization.

The above said, it would be wrong to think that psychological safety is only leaders’ responsibility. This is because psychological safety is a group phenomenon - it’s about whether individuals believe a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It’s about whether the team environment is one in which people believe they can speak up without social threat. These threats can include the risk of being shown up in public for making a mistake, getting snide remarks, or being gossiped about on internal comms channels like MS Teams or Slack. Leaders, like other team members, may also be subjected to these social threats. For example via trolling, gossiping, or passive aggressive questioning at company townhalls.

Psychological safety is the responsibility of leaders and all colleagues within an organization. It is the outcome of the choices that people make everyday: about how they act at work, about how they treat their colleagues, and about how they choose to address behaviors that may be creating a social threat for others.  

Myth 2: People are psychologically safe or not

Psychological safety is the belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.  

A recent pattern that’s emerged is the labelling of people as “psychologically safe” or not. When people label others in this way, they are often sorting people into buckets: people whose behaviors support psychological safety versus people whose behaviors do not. While this may seem like a helpful way to clarify whose behavior needs to improve, the bucketing of people is often done without a fair or objective process to confirm that an individual is a categorical threat to psychological safety. Here, unfortunately, there are parallels between labelling people as “psychologically unsafe” and generating inaccurate biases that undermine constructive work relationships. 

Ironically, labelling others as “psychologically unsafe” is the antithesis of psychological safety. Intentionally or not, it publicly calls into question someone’s professional standing which creates an unambiguous social threat for them. The irony continues: this type of labelling is usually a response to someone making a real or perceived mistake, or sharing an idea or concern that the labeller disagrees with. The effect of such a use of the concept of psychological safety is to reduce it.  

No matter how well-intentioned people are, psychological safety always suffers when team members focus on calling out and diminishing others who they perceive to be a problem. By contrast, psychological safety flourishes when team members collaborate to find and amplify behaviours that grow psychological safety in the organization.

Keeping programs focused on the organization, not particular stakeholders

The myths explored in this article hamper psychological safety programs by mis-focussing them, failing to engage stakeholders, and undermining constructive work relationships.

For most large and complex organizations, psychological safety represents an untapped opportunity to achieve step change improvement in organizational performance. To capitalize on this, it's important to address any myths about psychological safety promptly. From the outset, it pays to be clear that each colleague has a role to play in elevating psychological safety. Throughout program design and implemetation, keep focusing the program on what psychological safety is really about and how it will deliver value to the organization and its different stakeholder groups.

For further information on psychological safety and how to design and implement a successful program at your organization, contact us.

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