Psychological Safety in the Workplace: How and Why

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Psychological Safety in the Workplace

 

When people don’t share the full story or withhold information from you, it means you can’t do your job efficiently or autonomously.

 

When was the last time this happened to you? Was it with a team member, one of your customers or maybe even your boss?

 

If you can’t remember when this last happened in the workplace, what about at home with your family? Maybe growing up, it was your parents, siblings, or even some of your friends.

 

No matter the source or how recent, the point is that it’s familiar. They told you part of the story but not the whole story, and the whole story would’ve made a difference for you.

 

Maybe you would have made that deadline, or saved those sleepless nights when working on that project. When you found out the full truth, you became resentful or even less trusting.

 

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons they withheld the information, and consider what you can do to save yourself time, effort and maybe a few headaches.

 

Psychological Safety on Teams

 

When people don’t feel safe to share what they’re up to with you, they withhold that information completely or only tell half the story. Psychological safety is feeling like you can share whatever you need to and it won’t be held against you, you won’t be punished or be seen as less than for doing so.

 

What was the situation that taught you to fear your boss? That situation when you realized they retaliate and make your work life hell, get in the way of your promotions, and even withhold well deserved raises. When have you been that boss for someone who reports to you?

 

With your team, are you reluctant to share an idea in a group setting? What is it about your team or the group environment that causes you to bite your tongue and not speak up?

 

In these questions lies an answer on the spectrum of having had a shitty experience sharing that great idea, or asking the question others made you feel stupid for asking. The experience left you feeling stupid, incompetent, and even worthless. The result of those experiences leaves you living in fear of “next time”.


Does Your Team Fear You? 

 

Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s the feeling that will get you to take action, and sometimes even freeze with uncertainty of what action to take. When you’re afraid of the response you may get from speaking up in a group, self-preservation kicks in and you keep your mouth shut.

 

The same thing happens when speaking up with your boss, even if it costs getting the help you need on that big project with lots of hours already invested. At the risk of looking like you can’t handle your commitment, you stay quiet. Is the price you pay with silence, really worth the outcome you create for yourself?

 

Yes, it can be “easier” that way, but is taking the easy way what got you to where you are today? 

 

What type of responses have you gotten in the past that has you keep quiet now? As a leader, how have you previously responded to your team in which they may not be willing to speak up now?

 

Telling them their idea is stupid or something similar, has a negative impact, which keeps your team from sharing ideas. How do you react when you hear something you weren’t anticipating, or just don’t like?

 

That reaction may hold the secret you’re looking for. Sit with that for a bit. Is good or favorable news the only information you want to hear about? Your reactions just may be what instills fear in others. Who could you ask for feedback that would give you honest insight into your reactions? What are you prepared to do with that information?

 

psychological safety in the workplace

 

The Big Secret: Honesty, Trust, and Growth Opportunities

 

Remember working on that project with the other team in a different area of the organization, and you got along really well with the leadership there?

 

You were doing a great job on that project, so much of a great job there were talks of offering you a job to come work with them. It was a great opportunity and a potential for growth that you weren’t getting on your current team.

 

The problem was the current leader of the project. They wouldn’t be too thrilled at the prospect of losing you. You were doing such a great job, that you knew sharing everything going on with the project would start to clue them in on your plan to leave, and they would probably do something to get in the way.

 

So that led you to not sharing pertinent information on the current project in fear of losing the potential growth opportunity with the new group. As the leader of a project, when you’re not given all the information and status updates, you don’t actually have a full picture of the project.

 

It may not be going well and you don’t know it because your direct reports aren’t comfortable in sharing information with you due to your potential reactions. This in turn leads to you over committing. As things play out you find yourself in a bind because you didn’t instill trust with your team to share issues with you, and it eventually gets you in trouble with your own leaders.

 

You effectively couldn’t do your job well because you instilled fear in the team. Even worse, you’re losing that good team member to a different team because of the dynamics you created around trust. 

 

What specifically are you doing in your role as leader to instill trust? How can you verify your efforts are accomplishing your goal? How might you change your approach, such that your team would share the growth opportunities they’re being given elsewhere?

 

What growth opportunities are you creating for the members of your team?

 

how team leaders instill psychological safety

 

The Rebuild

 

Not being able to do your job efficiently or effectively, sucks. It not only sucks, your leader can keep you from getting a promotion that you want. Understanding how trust, or the lack of trust is a factor, you now have a starting point to turn the ship around. With the understanding of what psychological safety is and how it’s related to trust, what can you do differently?

 

How do you go about changing the dynamic of your team, so that you can get things done? If you want your team to share as new information as it arises, this is where you will need to spend some time thinking.


As leader what do you need to rebuild that trust? What does your team require to trust you, and when was last time you had a conversation about trust? What does that trust it look like for the individuals and the collective team?

 

What do you need to feel trust, and what does it look like to walk the walk of a trusting relationship? What can your leader do more of, such that you’re not afraid to share information with them? Whether you’re at home or in the workplace that reluctance to share, operates the same.


How does it feel knowing that you’re the reason people are leaving your team? When you’re the reason that people aren’t growing and able to leave your team for bigger better opportunities. Is that the legacy you want to leave in your role?

 

Four helpful questions to build Psychological Safety in a team:

 

  • What can we count on each other for?

 

  • What is our team’s purpose?

 

  • What is the reputation we aspire to have?

 

  • What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfill our purpose?

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Tamir Hasan

Tamir Hasan

is a leadership development coach and conflict resolution specialist for a local government agency in the Seattle area. He finds value in supporting others to fill the leadership skills and competency gaps, in which traditional educational institutions create. As a firm believer of providing people core skills before they fail, it is important for him to move all of humanity towards being socially sustainable.

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