You Can’t Force Psychological Safety

In recent years, a lot more emphasis has been placed on making spaces (particularly workplaces) into settings that have psychological safety. I consider this a fantastic trend (though a lot of people tend to disagree with me) because people who feel psychologically safe not only have a better quality of life, the results of their work tend to be better.

What sane, healthy business or leader doesn’t want to have happy employees who do great work?

The problem is that a lot of people have absolutely no idea how to foster this kind of environment (or, worse yet, say they want to foster it and then do everything they can to destroy that safety). Many of them seem to think that it’s as simple as saying “you’re safe. You can talk to me about anything.”

It doesn’t work like that.

The truth of the matter is that you can’t make someone else feel psychologically safe. You don’t have that power – only they do. There is no magic wand that you can wave and say “you’re psychologically safe!” (Especially since that’s usually followed by an unspoken “Now go do what I say”).

Real psychological safety happens when the other person feels that they have it. End of story.

So, if you can’t make someone else feel safe, how the heck do you get to a place where your team actually has psychological safety?

The answer is that it’s much like nurturing any other kind of relationship – you do things that help foster it and try to avoid things that harm it.

Things That Help Foster Psychological Safety

Treat people like people – I know I say this a lot, but the people around you are people. Not resources. Not human capital. They’re people, damnit. Treat them like it. You’re never going to have psychological safety in a group of people that you don’t treat like people.

Follow up on your commitments – Show the people around you that you do what you say you will. Every. Single. Day. People who consistently see that you do what you say are going to be more likely to open up.

Own your mistakes – Don’t bury mistakes that you make. Admit to them with your whole chest. Especially when they cause some harm (even small harm) to the people around you.

Apologize and make things right – After you’ve admitted to the mistake, apologize for it and see what can be done to make things right. Did you ever have moments as a kid when adults essentially told you to deal with it when they did something that hurt you? Did you like that? Did it make you feel safe? Yeah, well, it doesn’t make your peers or people who report to you feel safe either.

Realize that we all have bad days, even you. (Sometimes especially you) – Have some grace with people, including yourself. Sometimes we have an off day and things don’t come out right. As long as it’s not a pattern of behavior, that’s okay. Own it, apologize, and do better. The people around you will see you doing it and be more likely to model that behavior themselves.

Reassure people – when they make mistakes (and they will), make it a point to help put things into perspective and reassure them that it’s okay to make a mistake. Then work with them to figure out how to make things right if something has to be made whole.

One of the ways I help calm people down when things go sideways is literally to say “If that’s the worst thing that happens today, we’ll be alright.” My team hears this fairly often. The thing is that you have to mean it and then you have to help them fix it.

Celebrate the wins – Don’t just focus on when things go wrong. Call out the things that go right, and do it frequently. Even if something seems like a small win, it’s still a win. Celebrating victory helps bring people together and reinforces social bonds. Those bonds help foster psychological safety.

Share the credit – You should be doing this anyway, but sharing the credit for those wins makes people feel like they’re not going to be used by you (because you’ve literally demonstrated that you aren’t just using them). It also helps a lot of people feel like part of a cohesive group, and that can help foster a sense of psychological safety.

Realize that, while you may be the one “in charge” on paper (or in the org chart), at the end of the day, you aren’t in charge of a damned thing. You’re responsible for the people in your care – I guarantee that every person who works with you can get a job somewhere else. If they want to be somewhere else, they aren’t going to have safety here. Even if the project isn’t great, you can help your team feel safe and even look forward to working together despite the challenges.

Things That Destroy Psychological Safety

The short answer is that the things that destroy psychological safety are pretty much the opposite of everything on the above list – berate people for mistakes, go out of your way to find flaws when they don’t really matter, be “The Boss”, and don’t admit when you make mistakes.

People will see those things and they will instinctively know that they can’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, they aren’t going to feel safe. Period.

This is sometimes a lot harder than it sounds. Remember that you’re a person too and sometimes you don’t feel secure in your own position due to pressures that you are facing, causing you to revert to closed off behavior. Those are the times that leadership can feel lonely, but realize that you aren’t actually alone.

The people that work with you (and especially the people that report to you) want to see you succeed and to feel secure because they themselves want to succeed and feel secure. If you put effort into it, unless you’re in a situation where no reasonable person could ever feel safe, they should at least start to feel like they’re safe in the space that you’ve created as a group.

Again, remember that power is with them, not with you. You can’t force it, but you can help it grow.

Also keep in mind that, while psychological safety can be hard to build, it’s incredibly easy to destroy. It’s something you will have to work to encourage every day, but it’s worth it – both for you and for those around you.

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