Psychological safety in the workplace revisited

17 October 2021 - 2-3 minutes read time
In previous articles I’ve written about trust being one of the most essential, if not the most important, characteristics of high-performing teams. Companies thrive when they have high-performing teams - ‘a group of people with a common purpose who take active responsibility for developing each other and themselves’1

Patrick Lencioni2 includes the absence of trust as one of five team dysfunctions that needs to be separately addressed. Absence of trust results in a fear of being vulnerable and open with one another, avoidance behaviour, and a lack of constructive conflict around issues.

Underpinning the drivers of a high-performing, inter-dependant, learning team with high levels of trust is the concept of ‘psychological safety’ – a team environment ‘characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves’3

Pre-Covid, a psychologically safe environment generally meant one where team members felt free to voice opinions about work-related issues without fear of being shot down or embarrassed. With the trend to a hybrid workplace, where working from home for part of the week has become the norm, personal circumstances will increasingly factor into work-related discussions. 

While working from home may suit those that are properly set-up and have few distractions, it may not suit others who don’t have the luxury of a domestic situation that is conducive to being productive. Those in the latter category will inevitably get to a point where they will need to disclose personal circumstances to the extent they impact the quality of their work, their level of contribution to the team, or their emotional wellbeing. 

Bringing personal issues to the workplace introduces a new level of vulnerability and one that managers and fellow-team members will need to embrace. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review4, co-authored by Amy Edmondson (one of the original researchers into the concept of psychological safety), provides a timely insight into the issue – where boundaries between work and life become increasingly blurred. ‘Having psychologically safe discussions around work-life balance is challenging because these topics are more likely to touch on deep-seated aspects of employees’ identity, values and choices.’

This puts the onus on managers to ‘…create an environment that encourages employees to share aspects of their personal situations as relevant to their work scheduling or location and/or to trust employees to make the right choices for themselves and their families, balanced against the needs of their teams.’ Given that conversations and processes required to create this new environment will develop and shift over time, the authors have provided a few helpful pointers for managers to start the journey:

Set the scene – share ownership of the problem by helping your team recognise not only their challenges, but yours as well
Lead the way – expose your vulnerability by sharing your own WFH/hybrid work challenges and constraints
Take baby steps – it takes time to build trust, so don’t expect employees to share their most personal challenges right away
Share positive examples – provide employees with the evidence they need to buy in voluntarily
Be a watchdog – psychological safety takes time to build but moments to destroy. You need to be vigilant and push back when seemingly innocent comments may leave others feeling they’re letting their teammates down 

Good leadership has always required high levels of Emotional Intelligence. Leaders who will be most effective in this new environment will be those who are able to bring a broader range of underlying Emotional Intelligence competencies to bear. These will, in particular, include emotional self-control, empathy, active listening, transparency, adaptability, influence, teamwork and organisational awareness.

Richard’s career across financial and professional services has included involvement with start-ups through to the management of complex, highly-regulated, multi-jurisdictional businesses. His CEO and Board experiences in New Zealand, the UK, Australia and South Africa, coupled with his extensive coaching experience, provides him with a sound theoretical and practical approach to supporting senior leaders. 
www.coachingforleaders.co.nz 
 

References:

1 David Clutterbuck (2007). Coaching the team at work
2 Patrick Lencioni (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
3 Amy Edmondson (2002). ‘The local and variegated nature of learning in organisations’, Organization Science
4 Amy Edmondson and Mark Mortensen (April 2021). ‘What Psychological Safety Looks Like in a Hybrid Workplace’, Harvard Business Review