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The Key to Psychological Safety in the Workplace: One Leadership Skill

by | Dec 8, 2021 | Inclusion

Have you been in meetings where a leader asks for feedback, or an employee makes a hurtful remark and no one says a thing? Maybe afterward, you gather with a colleague to discuss the incident, but nothing gets resolved. You likely experience a lack of psychological safety.

A Lack of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Psychological safety was described by William Kahn as ‘being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career,” and popularized by Amy Edmondson.  Although psychological safety plays a significant role in a company’s success because it affects team members, millions of employees worldwide have yet to experience it.

Instead, many of these individuals live in fear of humiliation or punishment for making mistakes or speaking out against something that doesn’t sit right with them. Of course, no one should feel that way in the workplace as a contributing team member working towards achieving a common goal, but it happens more often than most realize. When it does happen, employees don’t look forward to going to work and may begin feeling like their jobs are taking a drastic toll on their mental health. Therefore, leaders who want to see higher productivity rates with a greater sense of teamwork must develop a plan to make psychological safety a priority.

What are the elements of psychologically safe climates?

  • Being self-aware of one’s impact
  • Displaying vulnerability to acknowledge mistakes and repair relationships
  • Listening to understand and having judgment-free conversations
  • Accepting feedback provided by employees
  • Putting a stop to blaming others while maintaining accountability
  • Acknowledging and validating people’s emotions and experiences
  • Resolving conflict together instead of allowing it to hold the team back
  • Taking a risk, speaking up, and challenging the status quo
  • Less cortisol generated out of personal interactions and more oxytocin
  • Support for others

The Myth

There is a misconception that in psychologically safe spaces people experience only positive interactions. Contrary to common belief, research in developmental psychology by Ed Tronick shows that it’s not realistic to expect that our interactions will be harmonious all the time. Instead, we should expect rips in our interactions seventy percent of the time. What matters most is how we respond to these miscommunications and work towards repairing our relationships. “Relationships shrink to the size of the field of repair. A bid for a repair is one of the most vulnerable and important kinds of communication that humans offer to each other”, says Rick Hanson, a psychologist.

Leaders who hope for eternal employee bliss or turn a blind eye to brewing discord are setting themselves and their team to fail. Thus, repairing relationships becomes the most valuable skill a leader can practice and help others develop.

 Strategies to Consider When Working to Repair Relationships

Follow this simple yet straightforward knowledge to repair managerial relationships in a psychologically safe workplace.

  • Acknowledge conflicts and issues that arise. When you ignore a problem, it doesn’t get better. If anything, it only gets worse. If you acknowledge that you know something is wrong, you can take the first steps to resolve it. You may want to say, “I know there is an issue, but let’s resolve it. We’re a team, and we can get through anything. “Let’s agree to disagree here, and find a compromise,” What would you say is your biggest concern at the moment?” It proves you want to listen, help, and repair any working relationships that aren’t as good as they could be.                                                                                 
  • Bring the situation to the table. Don’t hesitate to talk things out. Communication is the key to successfully repairing relationships. And, it’s essential to communicate well while having patience and being understanding. For example, you can always say, “I understand there is a problem, and I want us to overcome it. What do you think is the underlying cause of this problem, and what would you suggest doing to achieve a better outcome?” When you ask for feedback, it shows you care and are open to suggestions from employees without shaming them or humiliating them. 
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize if you were in the wrong. Even when you’re in a higher position because you’re a leader, an apology can still go a long way and is worth saying if you know you were in the wrong. It makes a difference to say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry for overreacting to that situation. It won’t happen again, and I hope we can move forward to work towards a brighter and better future.
  • Encourage openness to build trust. Remain open to encourage a trusting relationship between yourself and the employees. For example, you can say, “If there’s anything else you need to discuss with me or have concerns about, feel free to let me know. I’m all ears!” When saying something like this, you’re letting your employees know that you care and want to hear their feedback.

Learning Programs to Improve Leadership Skills in Building Psychologically Safe Environments

Not everyone naturally knows how to quickly and efficiently resolve conflicts while repairing relationships. However, leaders can receive the training needed to see discord as a critical aspect of relationship development. They can learn the neural basis of conflict management to strengthen their ability to repair relationships. As a result, they can become more self-aware and make vital changes to help employees gain a much greater sense of trust within one another. In addition, coaching is available to help leaders receive guidance, tips, and strategies that can lead to personal growth.

Psychological Safety Benefits Everyone

To conclude, we know that when there is psychological safety in the workplace, there is more trust between employees and employers. Employees don’t have that constant fear of being shamed, humiliated, or punished for their thoughts, feelings, and ideas, they’re more likely to learn and feel accepted. So, if you want to build inclusive cultures encourage your leaders to practice repairing relationships.

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