Psychological Safety


I’m currently working with a global leader, and as part of the project, I interviewed a number of his direct reports. Something that was consistently coming up, from the direct reports, was that it was very difficult to provide a contrary opinion, to this leader during meetings.
Whenever something was raised about a topic that the leader disagreed with, or was against the viewpoint of the leader, he got upset, he pushed back, and he disagreed about it, so that people who’d been working with him for a while said, ‘Well, we always check the temperature, before we challenge, because otherwise, there’s no point doing it.’
When I was conversing with the leader, I raised this with him, and as with most of us, he was surprised that that was the feedback he was getting, because he thought he was quite open. I then spoke to him about the aspect of psychological safety. We know a lot about safety, in terms of physical safety. If you’re working in manufacturing, oil and gas, mining, any of those industries where there is a chance of harm, physical harm, safety is a key value that is very important in the workplace.
However, in more knowledge-based businesses, psychological safety is really important.What is psychological safety? Similar to physical safety, psychological safety is the ability to have the space to say what I need to say, without feeling that I will be attacked, or that I will be harmed, in doing so. We talk a lot about having diversity of thinking in our teams, about having alternative perspectives, having people look at and present different points of views. The fact of the matter is, it’s very difficult to present alternative points of view, if people do not feel psychologically safe to do so.
We want people to have alternative perspectives. It is not possible for us, to know exactly what’s happening in different parts of the business, because we are not on the ground. So you want people to be able to raise alternative points of view. Here are some of the things that I suggested to my client to create psychological safety, and you may want to practise yourself.
One is to explicitly encourage divergent thinking. To say, ‘I want different points of view on this particular topic.’
Second is to be able to role model that, so when you raise an idea, present a couple of alternative perspectives to that idea. Demonstrate your own space of thinking, in terms of, ‘Here are different ways to look at this particular topic.’
Third is to resist the temptation to disagree whenever someone raises something. It’s really easy, as a leader, to jump down on an idea, but resist the temptation. Instead, ask some questions. Practise the skill of inquiry. Come from a space of curiosity. Try to understand what is behind those statements. Try to understand the idea a little further, because that will give you a better perspective. You don’t have to buy into the idea, but you want to show that you are interested, in terms of trying to understand the idea.
The last step is to actually acknowledge people in the team for bringing in ideas that are from left field. You want to encourage that and say, ‘Well done,’ for doing that, because, again that encourages and creates the momentum for others to do the same.