Psychological Safety

Full Transcript Below

[ANNOUNCER]: Breaking down everyday workplace issues and diagnosing the hidden sickness not just the obvious symptom, our hosts James and Coby.

[COBY]: Did we lose a patient?

[JAMES]: No that’s just my lunch.

[COBY]: Hey thanks for joining us. I’m Coby, he’s James. So let’s get started with a question. How do you build psychological safety?

[JAMES]: So psychological safety is a big topic, and if you’re not familiar with the term it was popularized by Dr. Amy Edmondson who’s a researcher and faculty member with at from Harvard and she has produced some really cool research around team dynamics and the use of psychological safety in teams. I want to start by kind of talking about how we use the term and then we’ll talk a little bit about how do you actually provide and build psychological safety at work. So when we’re discussing psychological safety really it boils down to the ability for people to show vulnerability at work so that’s the ability for them to ask questions, to speak up when they need something, to speak up when there’s something that’s not right in the workplace. Psychological safety really comes down to how do you provide for safety, that’s not physical safety, but do you provide a safe environment for your workforce to be able to be themselves, show vulnerability, make suggestions, ask for accommodations all of those areas; without the fear of retribution or reprisal.

[COBY]: Yeah, and another part of it too is that psychological safety has become a fairly popular topic amongst kind of wellness conversations and kind of, like you know, in like you know HR communities and stuff. I know like in Canada the terms kind of got lumped into psychological health and safety which when you kind of look into that that’s a bit different that’s more about, protection of emotional well-being of people and it’s more about, I think it’s more to do with like, you know, kind bullying or the opportunity or removing stigma around having mental health issues or having a hard time and that kind of stuff it’s definitely… there’s definitely a lot of a lot of commonalities to how we talk about psychological safety. And kind of how is defined by Dr. Edmundson, but it is something that it is kind of becoming… different definitions tend to like murky the water a little bit, But we’re really talking about about the key to it is being able, to kind of, put yourself out there and be vulnerable, and kind of ask questions, and speak your mind without damaging your reputation or your relationships.

[JAMES]: Right and the key there is really the being able to do it without reprisal right without, without the fear of losing your job or like telling, like when something is not right in the workplace or your manager is doing something wrong, or you know something is happening that really needs to be brought to light. Do you feel confident that you can raise those concerns to whomever they need to be brought before and not suffer consequences for your actions. Now obviously that needs to be done in a certain way right like you it’s not about having no consequences for anything that you do it’s about.. Well one example is many companies will have a policy around whistleblowing. So the idea that if something is happening that is wrong. Really it tends to be, whistleblowing tends to be, around illegal issues that that person is protected. Right and that’s one very specific form of providing for psychological safety in one very specific area. That same idea needs to be extended throughout your workplace to how do you provide that guarantee that people can share, that they can raise issues, and that they can ask for what they need, without it negatively impacting their job.

[COBY]: Yeah and the example that Dr. Edmundson gives when she talks about it is, from a healthcare perspective, is the idea of like you know if you’re a nurse working with the doctor and the doctor is prescribing something that you think would be dangerous or against what’s best for the patient do you have the psychological safety to voice that opinion? And I like to kind of think of it in terms of almost normalizing professional discourse. It’s about being able to kind of have a real conversation and not have to like put on airs or not have to… like you realize that I know this is wrong but I can’t say anything because I’m gonna, you know, be made fun of. I’m gonna lose my job, or I’m gonna be reprimanded for challenging the almighty word of someone else. And I think that kind of gets to kind of the core of it and when psychological safety is talked about as far as psychological health and safety, a lot of it’s more of the effect that not having that voice, not being comfortable or confident to speak up, or feeling like you can speak up, a lot of it is about you know what happens when that doesn’t exist. How it affects your emotional well-being. So we kind of talk about it as having something that improves workplace, and a lot of the psychological health and safety is more about what happens when that creates… that distress or that difficulty or that stigma that kind of what that leads to kind of beyond that.

[JAMES]: Well and one point that you just mentioned there that I think we really need to expand on is, how it benefits the workplace, how it affects the workplace. What… by providing psychological safety, what are you actually getting in return? Right? What is the benefit of that or what is the outcome attached with that? And we talk about psychological safety Is one of the core foundational pieces of our Workplace Culture Hierarchy and it’s the second stage. So once you have met your legal and industry compliance and you’re moving beyond that basic legal minimum the next thing on the hierarchy that you need to look at is psychological safety and it is a foundation for everything that comes after. Inclusion, Engagement, and Strive. And psychological safety is something that is very very commonly missed. We often jump straight into trying to create inclusion or creating engagement without providing for psychological safety first. And what you get, the benefit that you receive from providing for psychological safety, is you have a workforce that is now comfortable and confident to speak up. People are will be more willing to share ideas, they will participate better or more often in meetings, discourse in general. I like the phrase that you used Coby, of, you know, it’s about professional discourse. Because discourse in general is a very very good thing, it’s very healthy. And the way that you get healthy discourse is by having a diversity of perspectives. Having different people with different viewpoints being able to carry on a conversation without fear of judgment, where they can, where you can work through some of these topics and ideas, and that leads that very frequently leads to, new innovations. There is a tremendous amount of benefit that comes from being able to engage, being able to ask questions, being able to engage, and have that conversation that discourse, without fear that people are going to think that you’re stupid. That people are, you know, that your colleagues are going to tease you for the comments that you made, or your manager is going to think that you’re an idiot for asking a particular question. That’s one of the core aspects of it. And that ability, that feeling of being able to engage that way is foundational to creating inclusion.

[COBY]: Absolutely, and what happens when that kind of environment exists is that it starts to build trust amongst people and it allows people to kind of have a sense of kind of freedoms in their workplace to be able to.. Again freedom to speak up, freedom to fail, and freedom to kind of use a professional judgment. And it creates a more empowering environment when you have the again the culture and the leadership reinforcing that culture where it normalizes people speaking their mind. Now we should say one of the problems is that psychological safety kind of goes against some very traditional old-school thinking of the workplace. Especially when you look at things like authoritarian style leadership. When the boss is the infallible, all-knowing, person and you as the lowly serf can’t speak against them. That kind of workplace has no psychological safety and if the leader requires that kind of, follow my orders and do as you’re told, then I can’t imagine a way that they could actually build that in their workplace. If you know so it really does require the leadership to see the value in having the employees have the voice to speak up. Because one thing that’s really funny or like, actually it’s more hard to imagine, is why is it that there’s this quest for talent, innovation, ideas, perspectives, and you pay to bring people in, you recruit them, and then you pay them well, and then you tell them to shut up and do what they’re told.

[JAMES]: Show up and shut up.

[COBY]: Yeah, I mean like you know and that is happening and it happens now in 2022, and it’s such a mind-blowing thing and this is why we’re like well psychological safety has a lot of value and part of it is listen to the experts that you’ve brought in and you’re paying to give you their judgment, their expertise, and  that requires some confidence in your ability to lead because as a leader you need to be willing to be wrong and be willing to listen to others you’ll be willing to change your mind and be willing to fail. And that is a required a thing that has to happen. So a big part of how you build psychological safety kind of has to really be leadership-led.

[JAMES]: It absolutely is, it is a top-down initiative and it has to be that way because it’s something that you provide to people and it it really does depend on leadership. I want to make one clarifying point or one add to something that you said, because I don’t want to give the impression that the only place for psychological safety is in environments that have high knowledge work or that are very technical, because you use the phrase of you know you’re hiring these highly specialized skill sets. Which is absolutely true and it’s like, that is stupid to pay people high salaries, highly skilled professionals, and tell them to just shut up and do their job. But it’s also, it matters everywhere. One core foundation, like if there’s one thing I could teach leaders to get and understand is that if you want to create improvements in your workplace talk to your frontline staff. Talk to the people who are doing the job day in and day out because guaranteed they will tell you they will have ideas of how the job can be done better. They’re doing it all the time, right but if you do not provide for that psychological safety, if you put on airs, if you are the type of leader who says I am the boss, you, do your job and leave the important stuff to me. You’re not going to get that feedback that really can help your organization.

[COBY]: Absolutely, and I mean, because you’re right. It’s at any position, any person, in any position, can have an idea of improvement. Maybe it’s a matter of why are we putting the displays of soup in the supermarket aisle here when it might go over there. Like, even as simple as that, being able to share that opinion with though the manager going whoa it’s my way of the highway. what are you doing? You know any kind of environment that allows for anyone to kind of say I’ve got an idea, I have an opinion. You know, oh no I made a mistake, I need, I can’t, I have to hide that. There’s this… I think what it kind of comes down to is there’s this almost like unspoken expectation that people have to be infallible. And that’s kind of where a lot of this lack of psychological safety comes from. Both from the manager, I’m the boss so I have to be this all-knowing infallible person, so a challenge to me is you know is hurting my brand of infallibility, I have to have, as a leader. All the way down to well I can’t make a mistake I can’t if I share an idea and I’m wrong then my infallibility is going to be challenged, and i can’t do that. I think that’s kind of at the heart of what it is. The air that we put on.

[JAMES]: You’re right and the idea that somehow making a mistake is a failure or that making a mistake somehow means that you’re not good at your job. We all make mistakes all the time. Believe it or not I have made a mistake in my past, professionally. Never in my personal life.

[COBY]: Of course.

[JAMES]: Just just ask my wife she’ll back me up.

[COBY]: Oh yeah.

[JAMES]: Definitely, But this idea of the freedom to fail is a big piece of it and both for managers it’s incredibly freeing and for your team it’s incredibly freeing. The idea that as a manager at the moment you become a manager, or a director, or leader, it doesn’t really matter what level we’re talking about, that somehow you automatically have to have the answer to every question is false. You’re allowed to say I don’t know but let me find out right you’re allowed to not have the answer and it can be very very freeing and empowering but it does require that you have confidence in yourself and it requires that there is psychological safety in the workplace to allow you to say: You know what? I don’t know. Or even better you know what? I kind of screwed up but here’s how we’re gonna fix it, right?

[COBY]: Yeah and but it definitely is top down because, like, if because the front line won’t feel that they can admit mistake or infallibility, if their supervisors won’t allow it. But supervisors won’t be able to allow it or acknowledge if they make a mistake if the managers won’t allow to make mistakes. And they won’t if there’s your senior leadership, but they wont the CEO doesn’t. So the idea is, it kind of needs to be, filtered down that we’re all human, you don’t have to be perfect, we can admit mistakes, we can share ideas, we can have professional discourse, even though I’m a senior director, and you’re a front line worker, we, you know, we can still have a conversation, you know, without it being, like you know, how dare you talk to me. There is that humanization of people. Because sometimes it kind of feel like the infallibility expectations is almost, like it’s kind of self-imposed. Because it’s like well I feel this way because everyone else looks that way so I’ll just do it as well and then we end up having this culture of this, of everyone feels that they can’t, you know they can’t be infallible, or they can’t make any mistakes. But then but once someone first says; Hey you know I made a mistake. Oh well I did too, and then almost, like, it kind of normalizes and then it kind of spreads. And I think sometimes it just takes that that acknowledgement of we’re not all perfect, and let’s have a conversation.

[JAMES]: Yeah you’re right, and the environment that you described not only will people not want to share when they make a mistake they will it encourages people to actively hide mistakes, right? Out of fear, and that’s dangerous. That’s dangerous for your business as like as you’re as the manager as the business owner you do not want people hiding even small mistakes from you, right? But if you penalize somebody when they bring a problem forward or when if somebody comes to you and says you know what I made a mistake here’s what happened. And you… some things have, actions have consequences. Yes, but stating the consequences of the actions is different from penalizing the person for making a mistake. And I think we haven’t done a good job in distinguishing between the two.

[COBY]: Absolutely and one of the things that’s really important when it comes to how work is done is to give people clear expectations of the enforced and natural consequences, that come with decisions that come with actions. Like it’s a matter of saying, Okay, here’s the border around what you what you can do and if you cross the line, you know, there’s, you know, we could lose a customer, or it could, you could get it reprimanded, or these are kind of things that happen if this doesn’t. And this isn’t a threat this is this is the border that you’re allowed to work in. But in that border, you know, you have the psychological safety and the freedom and the autonomy to kind of use your judgment, and to make mistakes, and to try your best, and explore new options. That type of approach really does give people the opportunity to kind of bring new ideas, new perspectives, and you said, innovations to the workplace. If they kind of know the parameters of how much freedom and autonomy that they have in their role.

[JAMES]: Absolutely and we’ve used the analogy before that I really like of lanes on a highway. Like I have the freedom, I can get in my car right now and I can drive from my house, I can drive straight across the country. Understanding, because I know the rules of the road I know the expectations and I know that there are both natural and enforced consequences of my actions. So when I’m driving down the road if I swerve into another lane, the natural consequence of that is that I could swerve into an oncoming vehicle. The enforced consequence of that is that I could be pulled over for reckless driving. Both consequences happen as a result of my actions. One is a natural consequence and one is an enforcement of the rules, and they are very important for allowing people the peace of mind to get where they’re going safely. When we disobey the rules of the road there are natural and enforced consequences, just like when we choose, to when we disobey the rules in the workplace, there are natural and enforced consequences. But people need to know them up front. Which is like if you’re going to build trust which in psychological safety relates very, very strongly to trust, right? If you want to build trust in your workplace then you really need to have clear expectations and that allow people the freedom to use their best judgment, the freedom to fail, you know all of the things that we talk about in our autonomy programs. Those pieces are how you build trust by providing people with limited freedoms.

[COBY]: Right, I think it’s also important to, I kind of made the statement about authoritarian leadership and stuff like that. And I think that is, I think that’s a fair point to say, you know, in authoritarian leadership autonomy and social safety are really hard to understand. But it’s not only in those kind of environments that can make it really challenging to have psychological safety. Like a lack of psychological safety doesn’t only look, it doesn’t only not exist in an authoritarian ogre manager, like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. It can also happen when you when you have people that, you know, that kind of try to use humor incorrectly or kind of poke fun at people, or even like you know they’re kind of like Michael Scott from The Office. That they, you know, that they try to be one, you know, they make fun of people but without without having the social cues to know that what they’re saying is really inappropriate. It’s not just the evil bosses like Mr. Burns ,it can look different, in different areas, or different kind of leadership styles, or whatever, that really can make psychological safety hard to have in the workplace.

[JAMES]: And I love that analogy partially because we just finished a recent watch, another run-through of watching the office, and I love that show, but Michael Scott is hilarious, I mean it’s a comedy show yes, and we get that, but if you look at his management style he’s a well-intentioned, generally, well-intentioned person, who you can’t tell him a thing. There is no psychological safety there because anything that you share with him will be shared with others, right? Like it’s just, and that is another form of failure to provide that, provide psychological safety.

[COBY]: There’s no trust when that happens.

[JAMES]: There’s no trust. Well I mean by now the majority of people have at least know who we’re talking about when we’re talking about the Michael Scott in The Office, right? We can probably to lesser degrees also identify people from our past work experiences who operate in the same way, right? Well-intentioned people but I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can throw them.

[COBY]: And I’m sure everybody has someone in their past that’s kind of like that. But I think when it comes to someone that you know doesn’t hold, or you know, that is kind of that old school authoritarian or isn’t, you can’t trust to go to, or confide in, or whatever. I think a lot of it is they make it they make it impossible for you to be vulnerable in the workplace, and I think that really is the key to actually creating psychological safety, is leaning into vulnerability. Because when you as an employee can, again, make those mistakes and all these things we talked about before, and you know that might be a natural consequence of what happens making a mistake or sharing an idea and have it be wrong or whatever. But I think leaning into vulnerability is kind of how you create psychological safety as a leader as well. If you are not infallible and you state that, and you admit I may be wrong, or you know you explain, I don’t you know or you know this better than I do, those types of small statements that imply you are recognizing you are being vulnerable and you are not perfect I kind of think, that’s one of those fundamental little things that does make a huge difference in the workplace.

[JAMES]: It absolutely does and it builds trust, like we’ve talked about, but it also builds rapport, right? It builds a… it shows people that you’re it’s a way of showing authenticity right because we all intellectually we all we know everybody makes mistakes, right? That’s just a fact of life. But there’s something special when you have a leader who is willing to admit that they’ve been wrong. Yes it is the cornerstone of providing psychological safety but it’s also more than that. It humanizes the individual it shows that they are being their authentic self and it makes you like them more, or at least in my experience. The managers and leaders that I have connected with throughout my career have been ones that have been willing to show that they are just a human being who screws up. And being willing to do that… we can pick out inconsistencies very, very quickly and when you’re putting on airs, like if you are spending all of your time trying to project a specific version of yourself. The moment you slip up, and you will, people are gonna identify it and they’ll notice it and they will critique you for it. Rather than leaning into the fact that you’re a human being and you know actually building a rapport with people, you can get so much better results, so many better results out of people, not just in terms of you know having a better relationship with your team but you can get better work out of people who like you.

[COBY]: Well, what’s really funny is that leaning into vulnerability doesn’t even have to be something that is, a progressive over time, you know  with these long-term relationships with your coworkers. I found it to be incredibly powerful when I… like for example when I make a mistake on my taxes. Which you know happens, you know you know especially when you’re starting in a business. I’ve had to call up the Canadian Revenue Agency and been, and need help and I and I always, I start the phone call, you know with, Hi, I am dumb, and I made this mistake. Do you mind helping me? It’s really funny when I do that because I can hear almost like a sigh of people, like almost having their guard drop, when I do that. And they’re like, you know what, no problem these kind of mistakes happen. And the person I speak to is usually very cordial, very happy to help me, almost like I’m a different call than the people that say No, you made a mistake, not me! You know, that it makes for a different phone call and when I break something in my house or I you know, made a mistake and bought the wrong, you know, plumbing or something like that, I go into a hardware store, like I don’t know what I’m doing, and I did this, do you mind giving me some advice? That type of leaning into a vulnerability makes people, it disarms people and makes them more willing to help you, because there’s that authenticity. This person you know is looking for help and you’re kind of clear about what you want. Not trying to hide, oh I knew what I was doing the whole time, but these stupid tools don’t work. And you know there really is, that it’s a powerful thing and I think that it can make a huge difference even in the slight interactions.

[JAMES]: Absolutely. And I just I want to share a story, because I love this one, and, so. When Black Panther came out in theaters, my wife and I we went to see it in the theater, in at the IMAX, bought the tickets, went in sat down in the theater, and the movie starts and it didn’t have the Marvel opening. I’m like this is weird, must still be just showing previews, so I sat there for like 10 minutes in the wrong movie theater, watching the wrong movie, and went, ah damn. So the black panther, the tickets that we had bought the movie had already started, it was like 25, 20 minutes into the movie, but there was another one. Anyways, we went out and talked to the person at the desk and started with, Okay so I’m an idiot, and here’s what I did. And you’re right, it just like it disarms people, so they’re like you know what, there’s a 3D version that is starting in a few minutes, just you know, here’s the 3D glasses, go have fun. If I had gone out with a very different attitude probably would have made me buy new tickets, right? Like this is a small example, it’s not ground breaking, it’s not life-changing, but it is an easy example of how it can disarm conflict, potential conflict, because you can choose how you approach these situations. I chose to say to use that I’m dumb, please help me. And it’s my first day.

[COBY]: Right, but I mean but there’s a big part of it too like when we come to those kind of experiences, those are more, like you know, you have, when you do that, you’re giving yourself the psychological safety to admit fault, which kind of which does require some confidence to do that, because it doesn’t always work out great. It often does more often than not, but you know imagine a workplace where everyone was like that. Where everybody was like, you know I tried something, it didn’t work out. Or, oh I made a mistake, or oh here’s an idea, it’s, you know, that type of disarming authentic, you know, easy to understand, easy to relate to, humanistic, rapport building experience. Should be what we’re aiming for in all of our interactions with our with our professional colleagues. It’s just, it just makes for an easier place to work into, and an easier place to you know, like to innovate, and share ideas, and to grow and excel.

[JAMES]: Well let’s look at how you describe that workplace, right? You you talked about you know a place where people can share ideas, a place where people can admit that when they made a mistake, a place where people can feel comfortable being themselves, that sounds like a place I want to work. That sounds like the place that I want to create, right? That sounds like a healthy workplace.

[COBY]: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that, I think going back to the question how do you build psychological safety? I think that’s really kind of what it is, it’s really about removing that infallibility expectation that we have to all be perfect and we have to not admit, you know, any type of like mistake. Or dare challenge authority, and we have to lean into and normalize the vulnerability that comes with being human. And if someone can share their ideas, they can share their thoughts, and their suggestions, if they can be free to to make mistakes, and free to explore new options, and you know and all the things and the expectations are clear, we create those lanes and borders to make it clear what happens, you know, in in the confines. But we build that trust, and that freedom, and that autonomy, I kind of think that’s what all this talk of psychological safety in the workplace is all about. And I think that that is how we do it. Remove the infallibility expectations and lean into vulnerability.

[JAMES]: Absolutely, and by doing that, you can create an environment where people feel that they belong, you can create an inclusive environment, which means that your efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion, will stick, right? If people feel like they can belong, that they actually belong in the workplace, that’s the key to inclusion. But it’s also the key to building towards engagement, right? Which is the big word that everybody wants. We want employees who are engaged at work. We spend ridiculous amounts of money on software and all of these different tools to measure engagement, but if you want to create engagement you have to start with psychological safety.

[COBY]: Absolutely no question. Okay, I think that about does it for us. So For a full archive of our podcasts and access to the video version hosted on our YouTube channel visit our website at Thanks for joining us.

[JAMES]: Thanks everybody.

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