7 Actions leaders can do to foster a psychologically safe environment

In my last blog I promised to write about Nurture Safety and Trust, #2 of the five collaborative competences that my co-authors Dr. Ken Blanchard and Dr. Eunice Paris-Carew and I chose to help organizations collaborate better. There is a lot written about trust and I personally like the ABCD model in the Building Trust program you can read more on the Wired Leaders website. The ABCD Trust Model™ which has a mnemonic for

  • Able - Demonstrate competence
  • Believable - Act with Integrity
  • Connected - Care about Others
  • Dependable - Maintain Reliability

The model really lends itself to the collaborative concept. All the elements are needed to make sure that both individuals and leaders behave in a way that demonstrates a collaborative mindset and supports their colleagues collaborative efforts.

Trust is generally between individuals, the leader and direct reports or peers. One key to building trust is to create an environment where it is safe to speak up be creative, make mistakes and learn. Underpinning such an environment is the concept of Psychological Safety.

Much has been written about Psychological safety. The focus was started by industrial psychologists back in the 60’s and it has been in and out of fashion ever since. I believe it is making a come back now because it is essential to creating a collaborative environment. You can read a really good academic literature review on the subject here. But what does it mean for the non- academics amongst us. In summary it means that everyone believes that they are respected and accepted by the others in the workgroup or team. And that shared belief facilitates at least six benefits (I can think of) to the work group and ultimately the organization.

    • 1. People will speak up

If people feel free to speak up the organization will not have secrets, accidents that could have been avoided are more unlikely to happen and incidents like the Volkswagen Defeat Device will not be allowed to become accepted practice.

    • 2. They will share their ideas.

Not all ideas are golden, but like panning for gold, there will always be at least one nugget.

    • 3. They will readily share information with each other

The tacit wisdom in the workplace is often as valuable as the explicit.

    • 4. People will freely admit what they don’t know

This one can save money and trouble. There are thousands of examples where people have been afraid to admit to their boss they don’t know something for fear of some kind of ridicule or retribution that has resorted in stress for the employee and every now again a lawsuit.

    • 5. Individuals can focus on executing the task rather than self protection.

If you are giving energy to being defensive then it is not going on the task.

As a leader you want to create a safe environment to get these benefits. And there are at least seven (please add any others you can think of in the comments section below) that can foster the communities perception of a psychologically safe environment:

  • 1. Don’t play favorites
  • 2. Be open minded in meetings
  • 3. Don’t be critical of ideas - listen to understand
  • 4. Manage team members who are overly critical of other’s ideas
  • 5. Don’t blame people for making genuine mistakes
  • 6. Watch for wall flowers and help them to find a way to participate
  • 7. Don’t indulge in gossip

The list makes it look simple, and like so many things in practice its not so easy, impatience or hard deadlines can encourage us to pick the same people for everything that is important and/or urgent. Have you ever found yourself trying to ‘cut to the chase’ in meetings and doing at least one or more in the list?

Sadly we all do things on a regular basis that can undermine safety and trust amongst our friends and colleagues if you find yourself doing any of these then you might be inadvertently undermining a collaborative environment.

  • ☁︎  Find yourself shooting down the same person’s ideas in every meeting?
  • ☁︎  Hold the view that someone in the workgroup is less worthy than you - you might think you hide it well but it will be leaking from your body language
  • ☁︎  Ridicule someone behind their back
  • ☁︎  Indulge in gossip
  • ☁︎  Instead of helping someone, let them figure it out for themselves because they’re dumb/stupid or any other negative opinion you have about them.
  • ☁︎  Withhold information or ideas from others
  • ☁︎  Don’t fully participate in meetings, you with draw your labor for some reason, often known only to you and maybe some close friends.

Psychological safety is perhaps the most fundamental concept underpinning a collaborative workgroup. Failure to create the right perception about yourself as either a leader or competent colleague and you are at risk of lowering your competence in the other four collaborative competences.

The next blog will cover the #3 collaborative competence, Involve others in craft, purpose, vision and values.

Jane Ripley is co-author of Collaboration Begins With You. Be a Silo Buster, with Drs. Ken Blanchard and Eunice Parisi-Carew.

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