Are You Hiding Things at Work? Have you ever had to deliver bad news to a boss who took it worse than you thought? Have you had your ideas shot down? Have you ever felt like you can’t really be yourself in the office? Are you hiding things at work?
Creating a safe place to work can be viewed as a means to an end. At its most basic it is a simple equation. If people come to work and they feel psychologically (and physically) safe then they will perform, feel and do better. This is even more important when you think about the changes of the last three years and our new normal in the workplace, where leaders are having to deal with novel ways of communicating and problem-solving and must engage teams and consumers globally who have new needs and issues, as well as staying on top of the extraordinary advances of tech and AI.
Being psychologically safe at work means being your whole self and being able to express yourself freely so you can share ideas and make mistakes without fear of rejection or embarrassment or negative consequences. This of course takes many forms. Perhaps when you are brainstorming,you feel confident to suggest something a bit ‘out there’ which may spark everyone to look at a task in a different way thus developing new thinking and solutions. You don’t need to want to leap out of bed with excitement every day to know you feel psychologically safe at work, but if you feel able to be your full self without putting energy into suppressing a part of yourself then you are on the right track. If you are anxious rather than calm or positive then there may well be problems with your work culture and how psychologically safe you feel.
So how do you know if you have a psychologically safe culture at work?
If a business has good talent retention, if there are more than acceptable levels of diversity and inclusion and if power is not abused but shared with the most appropriate people, then your business may have a culture of psychological safety. But there are also clues in the detail. Is there laughter and lightness? Is it safe to express a view and are you openly welcome to give an opinion that is not in the mainstream? Are problems shared and are people willing to help one another? Is there any hint of bullying, harassment, micro-aggressions or gas-lighting? Is there astrong sense of purpose?
Are the rules there for guidance rather than oppression, yet almost always adhered to? Are support arms such as HR respected and recognised for being open and available? Businesses with a psychologically safe culture tend to be innovative. Perhaps they offer creative time. They certainly value the flexibility of thinking and being challenged with respect.
As Simon Sinek says, “We cannot tell people to trust us. We cannot instruct people to come up with big ideas. And we certainly can’t demand that people cooperate. These are always results – the results of feeling safe and trusted among the people with whom we work.”
How to create a psychologically safe workspace?
1. Be calm and steady. Leaders who are good role models and are calm can instil that in the teams around them; as equally can a volatile, hostile boss. There is safety in being in the hands of a leader who can make quick decisions but equally is steady. When I was in the Marines I remember once leading a whole unit on parade for a medal ceremony which comprised over 1000 men and women. Everyone was in place and then I remembered, my citations were in my safe back in my office. I saw the CO walking towards me and went up to him, saluted and told him the parade was ready, but that I had forgotten the citations. He looked at me and said with a kind of gentle firmness that inspired so many that he led, “Go and get them”. I had completely messed up, but with those few words, he focused on what needed to happen rather than bawling me out. He was modelling pragmatism whilst not demeaning me, staying calm and steady under pressure. And he knew that I was already punishing myself enough. Creating shame is a great traumatiser, and he never used that tactic.
2. Look under the carpets and behind the wallpaper for poor behaviour. It can bring down an organisation. This includes any leadership behaviour that creates cynicism – micromanagement, the expectation of overtime and people being available at all hours, the not allowing of breaks. Nip problems firmly in the bud.
3. If you have to make tough decisions, first talk to people and explain the reasons. Treat them as people, not human capital or resources. And remember that a decision deferred is a decision in and of itself.
4. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Be human in front of people and acknowledge you make mistakes too. Take ownership of failures and mistakes. Build relatability and trust by offering vulnerability. I have often made mistakes and it was fear of being shown up in some way which made me want to hold back but I have learnt over time that the avoidance of discomfort always leads to greater, and more long-lived pain.
5. Care and look after one another – My father used to be the MD of an engineering factory and every day around 4 pm he used to walk around the whole shop floor, not to spy but because he cared. And he was greatly respected as a leader. He also heard about things that weren’t going so well early enough often to initiate timely remedial action. You don’t have to create a family atmosphere at work, ultimately of course many families are very dysfunctional(!), but respect and caring need to be embedded at the heart of the workplace. When something goes wrong as a business, don’t just take a corporate line. Understand how this will affect your people and then find ways to support them.
6. Ask lots of questions. Listen, listen, listen. If you have to deliver bad news, present it in a way that will allow them to hear it without the need for conflict or destroying hope or self-esteem. With one client I arranged for customers to come in and tell the organisation what it was like to be a customer. The client staff were shocked as they really didn’t know how bad a job they were doing from the customer’s point of view but took it as a great learning opportunity to do better.
7. Look at who holds power and check whether it is appropriate. The difference between leadership, power and its abuse is fear and control. Good leaders do not hold onto power but enable it to pass to the most appropriate person or department, thus helping others to succeed and have a positive influence. I have seen truly humble people who have been inspiring leaders and they have all acknowledged they didn’t know all the answers.
8. Create opportunities for all colleagues to speak up. Speaking up about concerns should be viewed as the right thing to do by all levels of the hierarchy and needs to be welcomed. Create forums so this can happen.
9. Diversity, equity and inclusion. If you don’t have a culture that exemplifies DE&I, or worse still leaders don’t value it, your workplace is not going to be psychologically safe. Think about it, that’s quite a big statement.
10. Deal with change well. In a lot of organisations, when they talk about change, they’re talking about introducing a new system. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in how human beings do their work, feel about their work and how they interact with each other. Build trust. Assuming good intent is central to fostering psychological safety.