This article was based on episode 203 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get $50 off any of ORO Collective’s paid courses and access an exclusive resource, the “Coaching as a Manager” playbook, when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase any full episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop.
Psychological safety is a precondition to a strong working relationship and effective collaboration. But what does that term really mean? It is often defined as the feeling that you can speak up and be vulnerable in front of your boss or colleagues without fear of judgment or repercussions.
Teresa Mitrovic breaks it down even further. Teresa is the founder of ORO Collective, as well as a consultant, coach, course creator, and author specializing in performance, psychological safety, and trust. She talks about what we can learn from looking at our employees’ psychological being (how their brain is thinking) and their sense of safety (feeling like they can take action).
GET INTO CONNECT, NOT PROTECT, MODE
When the brain feels safe, it activates the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat for executive functioning skills. We feel curious, engaged, and creative. We want to engage with the world, lean in, and connect with others. This “connect mode” occurs when we feel psychological safety. We feel empowered to share our thoughts and engage in robust conversation, confident that others won’t judge us for disagreeing, offering a critique, or sharing a wild idea.
When the brain is in a state of stress, it pulls back into the limbic brain which triggers fight/flight/freeze mode. We seek protection and don’t act until we’ve fully assessed the situation and risks. We feel emotional tension instead of creative tension. This causes us to try to resolve problems quickly instead of thoughtfully. In this state, we are constrained and fearful of how others might perceive our actions and therefore resist speaking up.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY REQUIRES NURTURING
Despite best efforts to create psychological safety, many managers complain that their employees still aren’t speaking up. You may be at a loss for what else you can do. Teresa recommends acting like a detective. Look for the little signs that indicate to you if your team member is in connect or protect mode. Get curious about what is missing or what you could do differently to help them feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
Oftentimes there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that is impacting someone’s comfort level. Sometimes it’s about people coming from different cultures; people build trusting relationships differently. It could be related to past trauma, which can affect an employee’s ability to build trust. Or, it could be that a person is conditioned to believe that their role is to stay quiet and not rock the boat. Whatever the source, managers need to figure out what that perceived risk is and remove it, mitigate it, or help the team member make sense of it so that it no longer interferes with the team member’s engagement.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
The truth is that even when we say all the right things, most people feel skeptical at first of trusting, open environments. They need to really feel it before their behavior will start to change. So, no matter what you’re saying to your employees about how much you want them to feel safe opening up, they’re watching your responses to make sure it’s really as safe as you profess it to be.
To walk the walk, we need to celebrate when our teammates do speak up, even if it’s hard to hear. Be sure to thank them for taking the first step to open the conversation, or for being brave and sharing their feedback. Acknowledge their courageousness. Even if you might disagree with their thoughts, their opinion is valid. They are a reflection of their own lived experience. Thank them for sharing and or remark on their interesting perspective. If you’re not sure of the best response, say you need time to digest and get back to them. Then, follow up!
PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY IS A TEAM EFFORT
It’s not always about what the manager is doing wrong. Sometimes it's another member of the team that is making a colleague feel unsafe. It could be the way they criticize ideas, interrupt when someone is speaking, or dismiss the person’s perspective. Don’t be afraid to bring to their attention how they might be contributing to a psychologically unsafe environment. Point out what they’re doing right (sharing their thoughts) with what’s not going well (how they’re expressing them).
Psychological safety means letting your whole team know that you’re not going to allow poor or negative behavior to continue. When people see that that damaging behavior is getting caught and corrected, they will appreciate your leadership in fostering a safe environment. Eventually, they’ll move into a space of connection, creativity, and expansion.
Psychological safety is necessary for our team - as individuals and a collective - to thrive. We need to help our team members move from protection mode into connection mode. Have individual conversations with each of your employees to learn about why they might be holding back. Celebrate when your teammates speak up, and acknowledge the validity of their perspective. And keep those critical employees in place; they might be the ones scaring everyone else off from contributing. When we attend to the various pieces of psychological safety, we are able to help our people feel more comfortable and confident, which will unlock great thinking and unleash our collective potential.
KEEP UP WITH TERESA
Get $50 off any of ORO Collective’s paid courses and access an exclusive resource, the “Coaching as a Manager” playbook, when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join.
This article was based on episode 203 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.