I’m sure many of you can remember being part of a team or meeting when you felt you wanted to contribute some thoughts, feelings or alternative options but decided it was probably wiser to say nothing? This silence is common place and sadly it is also harming many teams and organisation’s ability to be creative, grow and develop.
I remember a time when I made the decision to offer my thoughts and ask the ‘stupid’ question, only to be shot down immediately. This was in a senior management meeting, where apparently all our thoughts, questions and ideas were welcomed… in that moment what was actually demonstrated was a person senior to myself struggling to manage their emotional self-awareness and in fact exhibited a hierarchical leadership trait, ‘I know best’, which sadly can be exhibited at many levels in any organisation. Personally, I just thought ‘oh well’ and probably at an unconscious level decided not to be in a hurry to offer thoughts or ideas again. When you have such strong characters in management roles who lack emotional self-awareness and regulation you can end up damaging any psychological safety.
Sitting in silence, not offering thoughts, opinions or valuable insights just nodding in the room. Sound familiar? When people choose to say nothing, at least not in the meeting anyway. The likelihood is they have ‘corridor’ conversations where alliances might be made, disgruntled people share their views and opinions and watch their backs. And in some scenarios people may even distort their message to avoid upsetting their boss, they become ‘I will say what I think my manager wants to hear’.
This wave of silence isn’t a useful way of supporting the growth of the business let alone the individual or team performance. The organisation missed potentially vital information that might save time and money, the team miss out on an opportunity to discuss, contribute, share and collaborate and the individual may feel less engaged, less valued and even regret or be uncomfortable. This silence or lack of psychological safety can also lead to opportunities being missed, problems being unreported or tragic failures that could have been avoided.
As with my story, I’m sure many of you reading this can recollect a time when you failed to speak up about something you believe mattered, and sometimes this reaction is at an unconscious level due to previous experience and not necessarily from the current workplace. It feels safer to say nothing than be sorry for a ‘possible’ reaction from others even if we have a well-meaning boss.
So, what is psychological safety? According to Edmondson (2019) when psychological safety does exist employees felt safe to speak up to their boss, ask for help, and admit errors despite personal risk. Life in a team or organisation where psychological safety is high, people are not hampered by personal fear. They are prepared to take risks in their communication with each other and those senior to them. It isn’t about creating a ‘we love each other’ environment.
Psychological safety environments are not insusceptible to consequences, employees still receive feedback which might include they are not meeting expectation, they are aware they might fail and even lose their jobs if they lose their competence or the business environment requires significant change. As a leader or manager perhaps reflecting on the language and words you use when communicating.
What impact are you wishing to deliver and what might these consequences be?
For example, if you are frustrated with lack of feedback or information about an error that has occurred and eventually something ‘comes to light’. Perhaps reflect on your communication style. The way you are perceived is an important area for you to understand. The classic ‘well my door is always open, come and chat any time’ might be perceived as ‘they are just words, your mannerisms, your behaviour says otherwise’. After all, research by Dr Mehrabian breaks down human communication in to 7% spoken words, 38% tone of voice and 55% body language.
Asking for feedback on your words, tone, behaviours from those around you is a great start, including those closest to you – family, friends, your boss, peers and the team you manage. Ask questions, be curious about how you can further develop your leadership skills, be open to the answers. As my boss used to say… “feedback is a gift, you may not like it but it is a gift”. Be brave and take this as an opportunity to better understand how you are perceived, it can be different to how we wanted to be perceived.
An important aspect to asking for feedback, information is how you respond. If you are open and curious and don’t apportion blame then the chances are people will share information more openly. If on the other hand you react, even if it is just facially then that is the bit they will remember. That reaction has been received by the person offering the information.
Remember to take time with communication, prepare yourself, take a deep breath. Ask yourself the question
‘How do I want to be perceived?’
If you want to be perceived as strong, dominant and perhaps a bit scary, then go ahead deliver the message in that way, knowing that building a team for high performance, open communication, creativity, co-creation and growth is likely to be limited. Equally, if you want to build trust and psychological safety then consider how you share and react to information. Do you take the time to really listen to the people talking to you, hearing not only their words but noticing their body language, how comfortable they feel about sharing knowledge with you? Consider what isn’t being said, ask curious and probing questions in an empathic way and not attributing blame. Acknowledge their input, express appreciation. Even ask their thoughts on next steps, help them feel valued and involved.
Building psychological safety will take time, supporting others to be trusted and feel trusted will take time and discipline. It isn’t about chatting all the time, it is about being present and role modelling behaviours, being accountable and enabling others. Some further reading around this topic are ‘Praise for the fearless organisation’ by Amy Edmondson and ‘The fear-free organisation: vital insights from neuroscience to transform your business culture’ by Paul Brown.
May 16, 2019