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Psychologically Safe At Work, Really? Or A fragile Web Of Trust? What Refreshing Leaders Can Do To Help

Kate Brassington brings the nervous system to life for leaders, and anyone under pressure. She published academic research in 2020, regularly blogs about this emerging field, and is the host of the Refreshing Leadership podcast.

Executive Contributor Kate Brassington

Safe space at work? Really? That magical, enlivening experience when it is present. Such a miserable, dominating, and shrinking feeling when it is not. Join me for a look at the intricate web of trust that simply must exist for us to perform at our best, and explore why it can be so elusive. I walk you through the nervous system (responsible for telling us if we are safe or not) and how it responds under pressure. I leave you with practical ways to build that web of trust that leads to safe spaces all around you.

Hands of two man people fist bump team teamwork

Expanding the depth of safety: Physical and psychological 

While physical safety in the workplace has held centre stage for many years now, there's a more delicate aspect coming to life – psychological safety. Creating a working environment where everyone feels not just physically safe, but also psychologically secure, free to express their whole selves without fear, is no small feat. I recommend checking out the great webpage of Andy Elwood for some evidence-based training on creating psychological safety at work. For a great article by Dr Heen Ofusu on reclaiming psychological safety, click here


Let’s go back a step though. How is it that we know if we are safe or not?


True safety: Navigating the nervous system

The giants of Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges and Deb Dana (whom I was lucky enough to train with) have spent over 30 years developing this practical theory that offers insights into how evolution may have hardwired us humans to swiftly identify safety or danger. This theory suggests that our core nervous system is like operating hardware running certain programs. If it senses danger, we are hard-wired to react. 


I say “react”, because the system is designed to activate quickly, without going through the (much slower) cognitive processes of thinking. It is thought that these reactions occur around 10-20 times faster than thinking. 


The good news is that we can learn to tune in to the subtle signs and signals of the nervous system that can let us know when these reactions are taking place, and we can build in steps to help us intervene with our reactions.


In the modern day, stresses of office, family, or western urban life are also interpreted by the nervous system as dangers. This affects our sense of safety and security, our ability to access higher-level logical thinking, and our social engagement system will warn us away from forming trust bonds.


Survival responses make us seek safety but in only two ways

In brief, if we sense danger, our automatic nervous system steps in and engages a survival response long before the logical parts of the brain hear about it. You are in reaction before you know what you’re doing.


There are two automatic response systems in play:

  1. Seeking safety via Action: aka Fight or Flight. (Hyper-aroused Sympathetic Nervous System). 

  2. Seeking safety via Disconnection:

  • Freeze (Tonic immobility)

  • Flop 

    • “Collapse” Parasympathetic Nervous System; 

    • “Submit” Hypo-aroused Sympathetic Nervous System.


Fight, flight, freeze, flop

Here’s a bit more on what those responses might actually feel like:

Safety via action

  • Fight: from the glimmers of irritation, frustration, through to anger and enough physical energy to fight for our life if we need to;

  • Flight: from the glimmers of unsettled, worried, activated, through to full body agitation, anxious, physically leaving the room, conversation, or group;

Safety via disconnection

  • Freeze: from the glimmers of feeling yourself go still, numb, shocked, spaced out, mechanical. In extremes can include fainting, unconsciousness. 

  • Flop: from the glimmers of appeasing, resignation, through to depression, withdrawal.


So what?

The only take-away from all that neuroscience and nervous system stuff is this one thing… you, and every human, is primarily wired to detect danger first, safety second.


That’s it. 


Trauma-informed awareness

To be trauma-informed, therefore, is to understand that first and foremost all humans are wired that way. Every leadership move, every coaching move, every conversation or interaction you have, will be wired this way.


Because we only have one “operating system”. We don’t download another one. It’s just this and it runs 24/7 in all situations.


Is it a safe space? Or a brave space?

A safe space is one where every person feels safe to be themselves at work. This can be helped by growth mindset, and a workplace culture of openness and acceptance. But trauma-informed leadership (and any other trauma-informed approach) is not about treating everyone with kid gloves.


This is different from a brave space for example, in my coaching practice, I invite people to feel safe but also courageous and brave. To push themselves a bit further, to see what might be hidden. 


Not every workplace can be a brave space for all people, and this is where I firmly believe 1:1 coaching has an incredibly powerful part to play. In a 1:1 coaching space, a person can really explore with bravery, taking this back into the workplace.


Leadership's impact: The ripple effect of bravery

The leader's state of mind profoundly influences the team's performance and the overall environment. The significance of trust, transparency, and consistency emerges as indispensable elements in building a climate of psychological safety. As leaders, our ability to be the reassuring presence, especially during high-pressure situations, slowly fosters a high-trust environment. And the more leaders in an organsiation work this way, the more brave space your system will create. For more, read this great article by Sarah Magazzo.


3 top tips for refreshing leaders

  1. Do take care of your own emotional baggage – we all have it (for more on this read my earlier article on this here). When you have learnt to regulate your own nervous system, you’ll be easier for people to approach in any situation (especially high pressure ones). 

  2. Be aware that just because trauma is all around you it does not mean that it is not there. This applies especially if you have widely diverse teams with people from marginalised backgrounds or characteristics. For more on this read my earlier article here.

  3. Be open, curious, and invite your people to tell you what they think would help. Problems are as much in the system being blind to itself, as individuals being left unseen and unheard – for more on this read my article here.


My approach: One-on-one, brave spaces

I invite you, when going shopping for coaches or therapists or other helping-by-talking professionals in your life, to really interview them about their understanding of the nervous system under pressure. You can also ask them what their view on safe, or brave space, is. 

And you can get in touch with me to explore how I might help you or your team.


You are the leader you are waiting for

Remember, when we talk about Refreshing Leaders, we're not just talking about those in traditional leadership positions. 


We're talking about leaders in all areas of life – in our communities, in our families, in groups. 


What defines a refreshing leader is something deeper, something that transcends titles and roles. It's about embodying qualities that bring about positive change while inspiring others to do the same. 


And it starts with you. 


Watch this space, coming soon

I hang out on LinkedIn and Twitter / X, and host my podcast Refreshing Leadership, and my blog, on my website. You can contact me via the website to talk about coaching one-with-one for yourself or your team member, or to enquire about me speaking at your event in person or online. 


I’m working towards starting a Doctorate on trauma-informed leadership coaching next year. If your organisation would be interested in exploring partnering on this, get in touch! 


Through this year I’ll be publishing a series of articles with Brainz covering many aspects of Refreshing Leadership. Bookmark my profile on Brainz so you can read each article as they drop.


Please share this article, we need more trauma-informed leaders to make a better world together!

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


Kate Brassington, Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach

Kate Brassington is a Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach. Listed as one of the Top 10 professional coaches in Luxembourg by The For Better Institute, she coaches people all over the world from her attic zoom room. She helps leaders learn to withstand high pressure environments, while sustainably producing great results. Her mission is to ease suffering and get the fun back! 



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