Effective Organizations Require Psychological Safety

Connor, the VP of Human Resources at a busy financial services firm, saw trouble brewing. After several years of steady business, the firm was growing at a rapid pace. Connor made many new hires over the past 18 months, and increasingly, there were issues between the “old guard” and the newer staff.

The long-time investment advisors and executives tended to communicate bluntly, and in black and white terms. They liked to “win” their battles, and their behaviors appeared to be even more pronounced when they worked with the newer advisors and executives. The newer employees were feeling intimidated and tended to react with “fight, flight, or freeze” responses. A few of them had moved on to other firms. What could Connor do to address these issues and help all employees work with each other more productively, more profitably (employee turnover is expensive), and more enjoyably?

Yes, it’s a Communication Problem, But…

Connor realized that there were communication gaps between the two groups, and that training and executive coaching would be very valuable. However, when he designed his training program and set up coaching engagements, he recognized that, while communication might be the overarching issue, the core of the problem was a lack of psychological safety at the company.

A psychologically safe workplace is an environment where people are confident that they will not be attacked, embarrassed, punished, or disregarded if they speak honestly about ideas, concerns, questions, mistakes, or recommendations.

Connor knew that all the communication tactics and best practices in the book, all the different ways to break down a difficult conversation, would be useless if the firm wasn’t perceived to be a “safe” place to speak openly.

We all have a response when we feel threatened. We tend toward either “fight, flight, or freeze.” If we fight, our responses and behaviors become aggressive, attacking, sarcastic, and confrontational. If we choose flight, we try to deflect, postpone or avoid the situation. We may literally have an urgent desire to leave the room. When we freeze, we withdraw into ourselves. We become unresponsive, waiting and hoping for the threat to go away. We may also agree with the other person, or acquiesce simply to make it all go away.

Noticing and Observing Psychological Safety

In one of our favorite books, Crucial Conversations, written by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Swizler, their discussion about “learning to look” stresses the importance of observing, and looking for safety problems. While it’s important to notice psychological safety issues in yourself (do YOU feel threatened?), as a leader, observation of the other person is most useful in creating a safe environment.

  • Notice how you tend to communicate in stressful situations. What’s your style? Self-observe your own body language, tone of voice, and tendencies to fight, flight, or freeze.
  • Pay attention to how others are responding and reacting to you. If a person appears to be uncomfortable and in fight, flight, or freeze mode, it is likely because they do not feel psychologically safe with you.
  • When they react poorly, consider how you can change your behavior to create and build a safe space.

For more, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Leadership and Psychological Safety.”

Nurturing Psychological Safety

What can you do to create a safe space to communicate openly and honestly, even in the heat of the moment?

  • Pause and restate the positive, big picture reason the conversation is occurring. For example, “I want to be clear that my intent is not to blame anyone because our proposal wasn’t selected. My only goal is to learn where the client believes we fell short and to improve our RFPs for the future.”
  • Be genuinely curious about understanding the other person’s point-of-view and let them know that it is important. “I truly don’t understand how you arrived at your recommendation. I need your help because I want to see it and understand it fully.”
  • Listen carefully and fully. Authentic, engaged listening builds safety. And the more you listen, the more they will tell you — and the more you will learn. Also, as someone talks something out, emotions tend to fade, which increases safety and diffuses fight, flight, or freeze responses. For more, read “Leadership: Developing Level Three Listening Skills.”
  • Strive for mutual respect. At its core, respect is honoring the humanity of another person. Staying focused on the big picture, listening, being curious, and seeking to understand are all things that help build respect. Respect is what allows people to get through tough situations and continue to work with each other — even like each other — whether they agree or not. For more, read, “Want to be respected? Show Respect.”

Building a Solid Foundation for Effective Communication

Connor introduced the concept of psychological safety to his company and guided his employees, first by helping them learn to notice and be aware of it, and observe it in real circumstances. Then he launched a series of sessions that explored and practiced ways to create and grow psychological safety — both as part of the organization’s culture and situationally, in the heat of the moment.

It’s working! Connor is seeing that teams are working more effectively, there is significantly less angry, aggressive, black-and-white talking at people, and employee turnover is down. For more about psychological safety, read “Cultivating Psychological Safety for High-Performing Teams.”

To learn more about creating a psychologically safe environment and other vital communication skills at your organization, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.