Facing a challenge at work (think, learning a new skill) is different than facing a threat, such as a boss who publicly shames his staff. When we are rebuked in front of our teams, our bodies go into fight or flight mode. The amygdala – that ancient part of our brains – believes social rejection threatens our very survival. This is why offering up a novel idea or asking questions in a meeting can feel like walking off a cliff.
Fear at work has negative implications. Businesses that do not prioritize the psychological safety of its employees risk the following:
A culture of silence
Fear of failure or retribution
Lower reasoning skills
Feelings of being undervalued
Saying only what the boss wants to hear (versus what one actually believes)
Lower retention rates
These repercussions lead to lower productivity – and profits.
The Secret Sauce: Vulnerability
To quote the Dalai Lama, people are human beings, not human doings. They don’t want to leave their vulnerability, empathy, and feelings behind when they come to the office. They want to bring their full humanity.
Psychological safety is the shared belief among our colleagues that it’s ok to be vulnerable. In teams, this means safety from social threats like being labeled negatively or ridiculed or punished with demotion for taking a risk.
Today’s employees look to their leaders for cues about which actions are rewarded or punished at work. As a leader, it’s up to you to reject retrograde beliefs about playing tough, rewarding the loudest voice, and exalting the status quo. Psychological safety is not a fad. Nor is it simply about being “nice.” It goes beyond fostering an environment of politeness, which makes people feel good in the short term but doesn’t necessarily foster long-term growth. Rather, psychological safety is about allowing each voice to be heard and have impact.
Consider this: Project Aristotle was an initiative Google began in 2012 to understand why some of its teams thrived while others sputtered. The deep-dive study (over two years, including 180 teams and more than 35 statistical models) found that without psychological safety, high-performing teams are impossible.
If everyone in the room can take risks without fear of judgement or retribution, imagine the ideas you as a leader could harness.
Leaders can take these 6 steps to encourage psychological safety:
Lead with mutual respect, not utter authority
By being approachable, your staff is free to voice their ideas without fear of retribution.
Avoid blame and forgive mistakes
Errors can be fixed, after all.
Articulate your own vulnerabilities and shortcomings
Highlighting your own humanity makes others more comfortable acknowledging their own.
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