We’ve all been there before: you’re in a meeting and the boss asks, “Anyone has any ideas?” and everyone falls silent. Or you’re in a seminar and the speaker asks for a volunteer, but everyone looks away.
If you’re shy, sure. But it’s not possible for everyone in the room to be all shy people. So what’s the reason behind this sudden reluctance to speak up, especially in front of a group of people?
The reason is psychological safety — or rather lack of it. As described by Amy Edmondson who coined it, psychological safety is where you would feel safe to speak your mind, show your emotions, and admit your mistakes without fear of being shamed, abused, or hurt.
Simply speaking, psychological safety is when it’s okay to take interpersonal risks - to let your guard down and be vulnerable in front of your group.
The silence you hear in groups is the result of human survival instincts. The fight-or-flight response is triggered when faced with uncertainties or threats of being:
- Criticized for proposing a bad idea
- Scolded for disagreeing with the boss
- Shamed for admitting a mistake
- Ostracized for giving an honest answer
- Degraded for asking for help
- Et cetera
“Psychological safety is when it’s okay to be vulnerable.”
These are the (perceived) threats that most people face, even in the most friendly organizations. What can you do, as a team member, to be safe in a psychologically unsafe environment?
Shaping personal psychological safety
Without much control over the team (like a leader), there’s not much you can do to change how other people behave. Your thoughts, however, is fully and only controlled by you. Let’s see how you can shape your own psychological safety, starting from within.
1. See failure differently
Fear of failure is perhaps the prime effect of the lack of psychological safety. If you speak up, the boss might get angry. If my idea fails, people might remember me for that. That’s all true, but then what?
That was only one way of seeing failure. A better way is to put failure in a more optimistic view. If you speak up and the boss gets angry, then you’ll learn to bring it up to him in a better mood. If your idea fails, then you’ll learn what not to do and will be more experienced for the next one.
It may seem like a cliché, but it’s only logical. Failures happen, and when it happens, it happens. Then it’s up to you whether to take it as a defeat or a chance to try again with better knowledge. And when you see failure less menacingly, it then seems less threatening, and suddenly it’s a bit more safe to take risks.
2. Learn to take risks
Psychological safety is not the same as the comfort zone, which means you need to learn to take risks in order to achieve it. If there’s a chance to fail, then there’s also a chance to succeed. If you have an idea to make something better, if you know something that can avoid a problem, then take a chance and speak up. Keeping quiet will not change anything.
Besides making things better, the other benefit of taking interpersonal risks is that your initiative will inspire others to do the same. And when people understand that taking interpersonal risks is okay, suddenly it becomes less threatening, and psychological safety is achieved.
One for the team
Even though it may be the manager’s duty to promote psychological safety in the team, in reality it’s a shared responsibility among all members, just like how climate change requires the participation of everyone to solve. This is because it affects everyone in the team, not just the manager.
Therefore, psychological safety is a team thing, not a personal thing. But even as a team member you can still do these things to promote psychological safety in your team. The point is to be the one who other people feel safe with, to be the reason that other people can be psychologically safe.
“Be the reason other people can be psychologically safe.”
3. Value people and start trusting
Don’t be afraid to ask people for help. I mean, there’s that threat of being seen as incompetent, but take that risk. People feel appreciated when their expertise is valued and recognized. Besides, it’s better to get help rather than wing it and make it worse.
But the point is that people realize you’re risking your psychological safety by asking for help, or giving assistance even if it takes time from doing your own job, or to listen to honest but unpopular opinions.
I Trust You by RossCreations
Slowly people will learn that it’s okay to do the same, and when they take the same risks, show them that you appreciate it — listen to them when they speak out, offer help when they ask. That’s how people start to learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
4. Reverse the golden rule
Remember the golden rule we learn when we were small? “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” It may sound noble, but turns out it’s not a very good advice. The reason is very simple: people are different; this means they react differently to different treatments.
In becoming the reason for people to feel psychologically safe around you, it’s important to understand that not everyone would like to be treated like you do. Calming words may help you feel less stressful, but it may be a reminder to their problems for other people.
What’s important is to understand people’s different personalities in order to set the proper landscape where they would feel safe to be vulnerable. Even doing this might be an interpersonal risk to you, but it’s one with a big reward — shaping psychological safety for your team, starting from you.