Psychological Safety is gained!
Many people know Google’s study about team effectiveness, which presented “Psychological Safety” as the most important factor for high-performing teams. This is also what it takes, so people can be the best version of themselves. I recently was reminded of it, when a friend and fellow coach elaborated on the importance of “putting it in place” in the work environment in order to reach better results and happier employees.
What does it take to create such a place, where people feel psychologically safe? One could think that the physical environment is important with living room-style offices, free organic food and beverages, plants grow out of every corner and located in the hip “BoBo“-district of a thriving metropolis.
Additionally the people, you have to deal with – of course – are even more important! Forget about suits and ties, they create distance.. we wear T-Shirts, jeans and sneakers now, and suddenly we immediately feel much cosier among our colleagues and most importantly our bosses. Add some table soccer tables, organize a party from time to time and work is fun!
I assume, many of us have worked at such places and we know that some of the most toxic environments look exactly like that.
Great leaders create psychologically safe environments
Of course, it is the culture, that allows people to feel safe. I do not want to explore now, how such a “universally psycho-safe”culture is created or if it is possible at all. For sure the formal (and powerful) leaders – even unconsciously – define the culture, which is lived at an organization. Depending on the level of consciousness of the leader, you either end up in a place, where you better follow strict rules or always obey to what the leader wishes or you have all the freedom, as long as you deliver the desired results.
Sometimes you might experience places, where every individual perspective is valued and any approach appears to be equally valid, but such places can feel like “terror” for people, who “know the way” or “want to get things done”. There are only very few – almost no – places, where a culture is as integrative, that no matter how you “show up”, you are taken as you are, have space for “your way”and feel safe.
It does not depend so much on the methodologies, which are used or on the systems, that are in place: it mostly depends on the psychological state of the leader(s)! Such leaders are able to “hold” polarities of opinions, which come up naturally once people with different mindsets or conflicting interests interact and help find solutions, which integrate such seemingly unresolvable conflicts.
Integral leaders, especially ones with great political power over major organizations, are a rare species and until enough of them have grown, one has to be very cautious to determine the “cultural fit” with an organization to make sure he or she feels psychologically safe there or not. Usually there is not THE culture of an organization, but there can always be “pockets”, where unsustainably-strong and/or highly-developed leaders can create a culture of higher complexity and therefor more value creation and freedom. It is almost like an invisible bell jar, where you are lucky, if you find one. It will help boost your own development as well.
There is another way! Become a great leader yourself!
Let’s change to this perspective. Now, I want to explore, what it means for an individual to feel safe. Generally you could say, that one feels safe as long the expectations towards how one’s world “should be”, are met. There are people, who expect more from their world, than others. A small child expects, that the world “circles around” herself. Before someone reaches the consciousness level of a socialized mind, the expectation is, that her will is full-filled. As soon as this is not the case, such a person feels pain, thus feels psychologically insecure.
To feel safe, we either have the power to change “our world”, stay at a place, where it is as we need it or we choose a more subtle form of “changing our world” and seek distraction of any form (consume excessively, seek status , watch television, …).
The alternative is growing further up – vertical development, which means, that you are less and less dependent on external conditions to feel psychologically safe. This means that, instead of looking for the “perfect” place, you develop your mind, so it does not matter anymore so much, which place you are in. Especially for Change Agents, this is critically important, because, if you are a leader in change, you are – by idea – outside the culturally accepted, and therefore psychologically safe, space. It is important to consciously be and work with the associated feelings as Agile Coaches or Transformational Leaders, but you should not get lost in them, otherwise you burn-out. (If you don’t feel it, you probably are already burned-out or don’t help change anything important or substantial.)
Psychological safety: if it does not come to you, go there!
Did you ever sit in a train, which is “standing still” inside a station, suddenly you have the feeling, that it starts moving and a second later, you realize, that it is the other train on the opposite track? Think of gaining psychological safety like that: you are not dependent on the development of the place, where you are right now, in order to end up in psychological safety. If you develop, the same place suddenly feels psychologically safe, although nothing has changed there.
Actually, great leaders have gone this path of self development. Only then you are able to hold the space for people and organizations to develop freely and thrive towards, what is also called “agile”. You need it to lead a sustainable transformation within the organisation you lead or coach. Otherwise you have to keep the people and organisations “imprisoned” in your mental model of the world, so you can feel safe. Many leaders struggle to free themselves from pressure of the hierarchy or shareholders, because they are too used to all the seemingly pleasant distractions, which come with their position.
Not everybody wants or “can afford” to be Gandhi, but it is important to know, that you always have it in your own will to move to a place, where you feel psychologically safe. It is within yourself.