Safe to say… but is it really? Leveraging psychological safety to encourage dialogue without fear.

Safe to say… but is it really? Leveraging psychological safety to encourage dialogue without fear.

July 18, 2023

A new buzz term is making its way around and personally, I’m a fan!

While not a new concept for many leaders (whether they know they’re doing it or not), we are hearing a lot more these days about “Psychological Safety”. In a nutshell, it’s about creating a space for groups where they feel included and able to speak up without fear of judgment or fear of making a mistake - both major blockades we struggle with daily in the world of facilitation.

What is it?

Have you ever been in a meeting or group setting and found yourself asking, “What if I’m criticized or judged for what I have to say? What if I say something wrong? What if my ideas aren’t accepted, or even worse, what if someone shuts me down?”

Speaking up in front of a group - especially a group of your peers - can feel risky, scary, even intimidating. Some people avoid it at all costs. This drives me crazy - just imagine how many great ideas are locked away and wasted because of this!

That’s what psychological safety is all about. It’s about acknowledging that human beings have the right to be included, the need to learn and the desire to contribute. It’s about providing the opportunity to challenge the status quo.

The model I like to reference is from Timothy R. Clark at Leader Factor, who simplifies the definition of psychological safety to “a culture of rewarded vulnerability”. The model identifies four stages of psychological safety: inclusion, learner, contributor, and challenger safety. It goes beyond learning and gets into the need for creative friction in order for innovation to be possible. It respects our innate ability to learn and grow by encouraging trying, making mistakes, and trying again. It provides latitude and permission to let people step into the learning journey – regardless if they are successful or not.

It takes guts and vulnerability to speak up, and too often I see people holding back, hesitant to share. As Brenee Brown says, “In truth, vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”

Why is it important?

As someone who facilitates difficult situations and complex conversations for a living, I think psychological safety is a requirement when we are generating ideas, exploring complexity, or navigating conflict. I appreciate it's deep value for the fundamental worth of people.

By creating psychologically safe environments, we:

  • Accept diversity as a fact and offer inclusion to everyone in the room. 
  • Encourage learning by making it safe to fail. 
  • Temper tendencies to compare and compete, and support contribution. 
  • Give permission to challenge the status quo, opening the door to candour without judgment or negative consequences.
  • We encourage encourage productive conflict, foster healthy debate and discuss divisive topics without fear.

Putting it into action

Our approach is always to create a space where people can feel open and safe to speak. It’s a balancing act - we have to recognize the risk that comes with asking people to step outside of their comfort zones, while creating opportunities for everyone to contribute to the conversation. Sometimes this involves breaking bad habits our participants may not recognize they have.

It takes work, but the rewards are worth it.

We recently worked with an organization that needed a good lesson in psychological safety. A new leader had joined the team during the pandemic and the group dynamic was ‘stiff’ when we encountered them. Members were a bit suspicious of group process activity - statements were veiled and careful, and they tended to stay within their sub groups.

The leader’s purpose in bringing the team together was to break down silos to encourage cross-team collaborations, and to help the group see that the landscape for the kind of work they needed to do was shifting.

Our first meetings with this group were only partially successful (as in objectives were sort of achieved, with low levels of commitment to them). We could see that the dynamic of the group needed some support. We introduced the framework of psychological safety and described supporting behaviors. We focused on the idea that culture changes one behaviour at a time. We reinforced behaviours that rewarded vulnerability - not just once or twice - but consistently. And we practiced it - over and over.

It took about five sessions with the group, but we got there. By the end of our sessions, we saw a significant improvement. Different perspectives were shared and welcomed, defensiveness was noticeably reduced, new ideas were brought to the table, and collaborations were happening much more organically.

Quick tips for group and team leaders

  • Sit in different places around the room during meetings. Move out of the “power seat” at the head of the table to make employees feel more comfortable to speak and participate.
  • Save your comments until the end.
  • Encourage everyone else to share and speak freely.
  • Ask twice as much as you tell. When you ask someone a question, it’s an invitation to engage and a form of validation.
  • Listen with the intent to understand. Listen, pause, ask another question before you weigh in with your own thoughts.

Want to learn more? Check out Timothy R. Clark’s Four Stages of Psychological Safety.

Photo by Silas Köhler on Unsplash

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