The need to feel safe and to belong in a safe environment is a human need. We all want it.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published an article “Theory of Human Motivation”. The article spoke about a less understood element- belonging. He described it as a need for interpersonal connection and humanness. He placed it in a prime position, after food, clothing, shelter, and physical safety. Thus telling us it is a human right.

Kim Samuel’s book ‘The Power of Belonging’ says, ‘Belonging is a principle that helps us understand what makes us human’. It defines us and helps us solve problems in a workplace, community, or society.

Safety in the workplace is about how an organization tries to keep employees safe from harm. Safety is key to belonging. Leaders create both safety and belonging.

Suggested read: What Does Psychological Wellness in Leaders Look Like?

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is when people feel they can share ideas and concerns. That it is okay for them to point out mistakes. That it is acceptable to question. This is even more relevant in a team setting. There is a reduced sense of fear and a feeling of safety for interpersonal risk-taking.

If people don’t feel safe, they rebel, lose motivation, and have psychological issues.

Research suggests that organizations that provide psychological safety perform better than others. They do well in:

  • Group performance
  • Creativity
  • Team and individual learning
  • Team confidence and synergy
  • Team efficacy.

I have seen these issues arise in organizations or teams that don’t offer support:

  • Employees felt ostracized for speaking up.
  • People felt bullied and/or punished for making mistakes.
  • Someone shut them down when they spoke up with concerns or reported mistakes.
  • Team meetings were manager-driven, silent, and with no questions asked by its members.

These teams and companies often value achievement more than growth. Amy Edmondson says there can be an illusion of success, but soon business failure results. This TED talk by her is powerful.

3 Case Examples from my work:

In front of her colleagues, a senior leader would face correction by her boss. He did this by shouting at her in front of her peers and sometimes her own team. She would rarely receive recognition when she achieved results. If someone pointed out a mistake, the boss would lose his temper. She said “ I would get teary and hold up myself. I  felt like a child at that moment. As a coach, I saw that the boss had broken this leader’s confidence. A senior and competent leader had begun to doubt herself.  She had begun to question her value. And this erosion of our confidence is what happens when safety is threatened. 

 

The leader who led a vertical in a multinational had to accept deadlines and targets, even if he couldn’t meet them. He felt that those who showed hesitation could not be in the good books of the boss or counterparts in HQ. They accepted only ‘brave faces’ and ‘ I can do it attitude’, he shared.  His truth, his opinions had to be buried. There seemed to be no space for a different viewpoint. Disagreement and No was not an option. Forget representing his team’s concerns, as a leader he did not feel safe himself. 

 

A mid-level project leader said her manager was hitting on her. He made flirty comments on her clothes and personal comments on how great she looked. She felt his undue attention on her even in a group scenario. She shared it with her friends on her team but didn’t feel her organization might hear her out. Her boss was a top performer for 5 years, she said. ‘Even if I complain he can get away with anything due to his top performer tag’

Readers’ choice: Strategies for Leaders to Flourish

Strategies to Establish Psychological Safety in Teams

In any organization, it is the responsibility of leaders to establish psychological safety.

Consider these as pointers:

1.  Begin with self. It reminds me of the lyrics in the famous Michael Jackson song, Man in the Mirror. “That’s why I’m starting with me, I’m starting with the man in the mirror”.  Understanding how to feel comfortable and safe in one’s own skin is a start for any leader. Leaders need to be self-aware of their beliefs, values, and the language they use. This helps them share in an appropriate way their ideas, vulnerabilities, and struggles. Read more about this here.

Venu, a group manager started with a story about himself and this set the tone for the team. Being a successful sales leader, he showed his vulnerability. He spoke to his team about how scared he was during his first solo pitch to the client. His sharing allowed many newbies in his team to feel less scared. 

 

2. Observe. In meetings, observe everything.  It gives you crucial data as a leader and you can then choose how to intervene. Here are some:

  • How do the members interact with each other?
  • How comfortable are they talking about their work, concerns, and their doubts?
  • How is each person gesturing?
  • Are there silent ones in the team?
  • Who is quick to speak?
  • Who challenges who?
  • Who escalates and when?
  • What are people’s conflict styles?
  • When do people have side conversations instead of voicing their opinions?

Example: Vani noticed a cluster of the above behaviors in some of her team meetings. Being a new leader to the team it was clear some dynamics needed to change. She believed the team’s aggression needed toning down. She began three new practices. One was having monthly dinners and drinks. Second was to set 15 minutes at the end of each meeting for the team to discuss how they collaborated. The third practice was to inspire people to be generous by making a wall for kind words and thank yous to each other. Soon the wall got populated and people would stop by, read, and smile at themselves. 

 

3.  Schedule one-on-ones. Safety building takes time to establish. It is necessary to have conversations with each team member for their input. In one-on-ones, the silent members also find it easier to speak in the absence of others. This also builds rapport with members. It also encourages them to talk more often in the meetings. It creates a safe space for the more private who do not feel safe sharing in a group.

Example: Vani noticed that 1-1s helped her get to know her team at a human level and beyond their roles. She could connect with their deepest aspirations and needs. She began seeing them much beyond roles. It enables small details and sharings to emerge. 

 

4.  Provide a safe place to express. The inability to express stems from the fear of ridicule and rejection. When people remove these from a conversation, they find it easier to talk. Removing expectations around impeccable results and achievements will help. Team members return with creative ideas and have fun in the process. Interpersonal relationships in the team and confidence in each other improve.

Example: A simple structure provided in brainstorming helps hesitant people to speak up. Stating rules and guidelines are then a great permission for expression and lateral thinking. In an insecure team, it’s helpful to have anonymous reporting options. It’s a good way to begin. Authentic feedback environments take time to build and starting with the anonymous is OK too. 

 

5.  Accept your shortcomings. A leader who admits mistakes shows their vulnerability and humanity. This aids in a collective effort to sort out the matter. This works well with creating a safe place for members to report their mistakes and learn from them.

Examples: Leaders saying ‘I don’t know, let’s figure it out together’ “ I was not right,  you were’ ‘ I take responsibility here, it is not on you’ are great examples of a leader owning up. 

This might be helpful: How emotional intelligence helps you become a better leader

7.  Model curiosity. Every member can’t be on the same page in every discussion. Operating from a stance of respect for the other, asking questions to gain clarity is vital. Get candid and curious about other’s thought processes. “Tell me more”, “I’d like to know more, can you clarify this?”, “Interesting, can you please elaborate” are some examples.

 

8.  Use ‘teaching moments ‘ and ‘learning moments’ as part of your leadership style. Moments of failure, roadblocks, and breakdowns are great teaching and learning moments. Speak about how one can adopt a new lens to solve/ improve issues. Using a problem like this will only boost the morale of the team.

Wherever possible, treat mistakes lightly. This will open teams and leaders to reflect and discuss learnings from the situation. It builds a growth mindset in the team.  Read more about this here.

 

9.  Clear, candid, and direct conversations. If someone speaks without saying what they want, ask questions to make it clear for everyone. Having written documentation of safety decisions taken in the team is useful. When uncomfortable, we should ask questions to understand the situation better. Use direct language yourself. Enquire, clarify and use data to support directness.

Psychological safety takes time and clear role modeling by leaders. Watch me speak about psychological safety in this video.

What have been your ways of providing safety to your team?

 

Connected Read:

How Leaders Can Create a Safe-to-Fail Environment at Work?

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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