The role of psychology safety in the workplace

Life is such a surprising journey with lessons that we learn on both our personal and professional paths that come to define us.  Some lessons devastate and can leave us struggling with insecurities; while other lessons can encourage us to be our best, step outside the box and excel in our chosen profession.  I am passionate about the practice of Psychological Safety as a people leader, because I have been on the receiving end of unprofessional treatment in the workplace and understand first hand how it can damage a person.

Psychological Safety simply defined is when team members feel safe in their work environment to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other; it is about having a voice and being a team contributor that is valued and shown respect - it is relational safety.

My negative work experience was with a previous employer who reprimanded me very harshly when I raised my hand and took the risk of pointing out something which was not right. My psychological safety was compromised and I shut myself down. The anxiety was quite debilitating.  It took a while to overcome the insecurities that took root after that unhealthy work experience. In hindsight, I was very fortunate in my next position to work with an excellent people manager who took time to coach, encourage and mentor me until I was able to find my voice again and become an effectual contributor.  My manager actually challenged me to share in meetings when he observed that I was struggling with speaking up. I credit him with helping me regain my professional equilibrium.

At its root, psychological safety ties back to our basic biological nervous system responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Thankfully, the primitive nervous system has evolved to receive and interpret cues in relationships that conclude when it is safe to be vulnerable or share freely even our mistakes or failures. For example: our “higher social brain” is activated when we hear a soothing voice, see a smiling or relaxed face, and notice calm gestures; these signs have become our common social safety cues that promote collaboration and teamwork. They are far more desirable than the converse expressions of disapproval, harsh judgement, ridicule, rebuke, criticism or the “cut down”.  In my opinion, effective people managers need to be exceptional communicators.

In 2012, Google conducted a two-year study entitled the Aristotle Project where they evaluated 180 teams to determine if they were operating effectively and analyzed the dynamics that were contributing to their effectiveness. You have probably already guessed that psychological safety was listed as the most important attribute. The study concluded that  team members must “feel safe to take risks and feel vulnerable” at work.

Here is a summary of the principles of Psychological Safety that I practice as a people leader at Capital One:

  1. Leading by example: I make purposeful choices to stand or sit with my team on a regular basis. This sends the message that I can be counted on as part of the team.

  2. Transparent communication: I openly and frequently share stories that reinforce I am human and make mistakes. No one is infallible, so sharing mistakes, missteps, and learnings reinforces that it is okay to take risks.

  3. Active listening: While I can speak all day long, I try to listen. I make a conscious effort to turn my phone screen-side down in meetings, so that I am not distracted by notifications and can be fully engaged. Small actions like this send the message that what I am discussing with my team is more important than my phone. Even with my remote teams, I give more effort in creating psychological safety by connecting with them more often and creating channels for open communication.

  4. Celebrate mistakes: People do not want to innovate if they are afraid to fail. Celebrating those mistakes and learning through the failures allows associates to grow.

  5. Consider feed-forward vs. feedback: Take a different approach to development conversations.  By communicating “moving forward, think about X or Y...”, this shows I am more concerned with my associate’s future than the mistakes made in the past.  Feed-forward should include the opportunity to try again and reinforce the safety around innovation, testing, and learning.

Want to practice creating psychologically safe spaces with your team? Explore some concepts from Pixar’s ‘Braintrust’; it provides great practice and will aid you in your transformation from an isolated authority figure to a vibrant team contributor.

Nisha Paliwal, VP, Software Engineering

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