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Four Ways To Create Psychological Safety

Written by: Jordan White, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Psychological safety is one of the strongest predictors of team effectiveness, engagement, innovation, and retention, and It’s not an uncommon term these days. It will likely continue to gain more popularity and relevance as organizations navigate the evolution of hybrid work, employee engagement, the intermingling of generations, and the unwavering focus on DEI.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it was introduced in 1999 by Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business school, Amy C. Edmondson. Her research helped her define psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”


Many leaders may assume they have done their part in creating psychological safety due to offering an “open door” policy or occasionally checking in on team members. Other leaders may understand its importance but are unsure how to create psychological safety. Regardless of your situation, the truth is that it must be intentionally established and maintained.


Here are four ways to create and preserve psychological safety:


1. Extend and Create Trust


Psychological safety takes time to build, and every opportunity to create it counts. Extending trust to your employees can be a powerful contributor to building a psychologically safe environment.


For example, an employee I used to lead came to me with a personal issue and asked if they could leave for the day. They went into a lengthy explanation, (what felt like) selling me why I should let them go. Mind you, this employee had just transferred to my team and had a history of suddenly needing to leave and address something outside of work.


I politely paused them and said with compassion and authenticity, “I trust you. This seems very important, and I understand you have a life outside work. Please take care of yourself and this matter, and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”


The employee was taken aback by my response, as they were used to a more challenging reaction from their previous leader. They nearly teared up as they thanked me for my support. I could sense the trust building at that moment. Ironically, these incidents virtually disappeared after that one interaction, and the employee’s productivity and engagement improved exponentially.


Extending and creating trust is often reciprocated in unexpected ways and is a key component in creating a safe space.


2. One-on-One Time


Another way to foster psychological safety is prioritizing one-on-one time with your team members. I understand that this may be a challenge in today’s hybrid, fast-paced, high-stress environment. However, there are costs to not taking the time to let your employees know they matter.


Schedules fill up quickly. Setting up recurring one-on-one meetings was effective for me in the corporate space. I met with each team member (up to 12-15 people) for an hour monthly. Something else to consider is it’s one thing to set up the time and another to use it effectively.


Are you distracted by your phone, checking emails, or still working on a project during this time with your team member? Or, do they have your undivided attention and feel heard, seen, and respected?


I would let employees know that the one-on-one time is their time. They were in charge of the agenda and topics covered. This strategy was beneficial in several ways.


As a busy leader, I relieved myself of putting together an outline for the conversation. In turn, my team members gradually learned to think ahead and make the most effective use of our scheduled time together. They grew as employees and emerging leaders in the process.


I would consistently acknowledge them for leading the conversation. Catching someone when doing something well and stretching themselves generates psychological safety, and positive reinforcement will increase the chances of the behavior reoccurring.


One final suggestion to build psychological safety during one-on-one time is to ask your team members how you are doing as their leader. See what happens when you ask them, “Is there anything I could be doing differently to help you succeed in your role?” “What can I do to make you feel supported?” “What would you like for me to continue doing?” “Is there anything I am doing that you would prefer I do differently?”


Be open to their response and understand that they may not feel comfortable initially. The more your team member shares with you over time is a way to measure how safe they feel with you.


Prioritizing one-on-one time segues nicely into the next area of focus.


3. Listen


Each conversation you have with your team members is an opportunity to create psychological safety. Listening is a fundamental part of cultivating a safe space for others.


Listening with thoughtful attention will show your employees what they have to say matters. Not taking time to listen will have the opposite effect. If team members do not feel heard, they will likely refrain from sharing information in the future, which may lead to additional consequences and challenges.


An effective way to show your team member (or anyone for that matter) you are listening is to paraphrase what you heard them say. Paraphrasing is expressing the main points of what you heard in your own words without adding anything new.


By paraphrasing, you confirm that you are actively engaged in their words and feelings. You will also create the opportunity for them to clarify their message and get closer to what really matters to them (helpful information for you to have!).


Consider how valuable adding “Did I miss anything?” or “Did I get that right?” to the end of your paraphrase can be. This addition will humanize you as a leader and invite a new level of connection to the conversation.


If you are unclear about what message they are trying to get across, be sure to ask questions instead of assuming or taking a guess. Try something like, “I want to be sure I understand correctly. Do you mind saying a bit more about what you mean?”


4. Demonstrate Vulnerability


Finally, creating a psychologically safe environment will be challenging without fully embracing vulnerability. In her book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown describes vulnerability as “leaning into rather than walking away from the situations that make us feel uncertain, at risk, or emotionally exposed.”


Many leaders have a natural tendency to “walk away” from these moments, thinking that avoiding showing any type of uncertainty or vulnerable emotion will result in them showing up as strong leaders. What if the opposite is true?


In my corporate role, I participated in project teams responsible for impacting our entire organization and over 100,000 members. One project, in particular, was a total conversion from one digital platform to another. This undertaking included reworking our integrations, securely moving current and past data between vendors, and many other tasks. As you might imagine, having such an enormous responsibility fall on a small group of people evoked a lot of stress and emotion.


As an introvert, I naturally observe, listen deeply, and lean into my intuition. I could sense the heightened stress of the group and the anxiety of not meeting expectations or delivering how we had hoped. I decided to lean in and suggested that we all go around the room and voice our biggest fear or stress regarding this specific project.


This simple yet powerful activity fostered a deeper connection because we let down our walls and made the conscious choice and effort to embrace vulnerability at that moment. Everyone exposing their truth resulted in many of us realizing that we had similar feelings and uncertainties. Taking the time to do this exercise helped us recenter and refocus on the desired outcome versus focusing on what could go wrong. It also made having “difficult” conversations easier as we navigated the rest of the project.


There are endless opportunities to step into vulnerability, and the results can be more transformational than anticipated. Having the courage to go first, be imperfect, display vulnerability, and create a space to receive it is foundational in creating psychological safety.


Do you have the courage to lean in and create psychological safety? What could that do for you, your relationships, and your organization? What are the costs of not prioritizing psychological safety in the workplace?


If you or your organization could use support in exploring these questions, I would love to connect. Schedule a free discovery call with me today!


Follow me on LinkedIn, Instagram and visit my website for more info!

 

Jordan White, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Jordan White is an avowed introvert, experienced leader, and (self) leadership coach. He helps millennial leaders and difference-makers maximize their self-awareness, effectiveness, influence, and value to overcome the stresses of life, love, and leadership. He supports clients in discovering the alignment between their natural assets and how they lead themselves and others. He is recognized by many for his ability to build trust, provide compassionate listening, and create a safe space that inspires hope and growth. As a wisdom-seeker and lifelong learner, he's an avid reader and has a Master's in Communication and Leadership. He is Coach U (ICF accredited) trained and certified in Axiogenics®, MBTI®, and EQ.

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