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IWD 2023: Psychological safety is not a cliche, but a real performance accelerator
Wed, 8th Mar 2023
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Getting work done in any organisation depends on interactions between teams, and teams rely on interactions between individuals. The simple reason is that the easier, more open and direct these interactions are, the better understanding is achieved, and the better people get things done collaboratively.

Maybe that’s stating the obvious, but sometimes stating the obvious is a necessary scene-setter, and in this case, the scene is set for the concept of psychological safety in the workplace. I will explain why this concept is so much more than a popular buzzword and directly contributes to better relationships between the individuals who make up teams and better productivity for everyone.

While the formal concept of psychological safety in the workplace was first introduced by a Harvard psychologist in 1999, it has always had an informal ‘unnamed’ presence, since we all have psychological needs flowing from having minds of our own. More recently, as the idea of safe spaces at work (and elsewhere) have emerged, the relevance and value of psychological safety have increased several notches because it offers practical benefits.

Let’s start with a definition: psychological safety is an environment where nobody is punished, humiliated, belittled, or prejudiced for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a shared expectation that teammates don’t embarrass, reject, or punish their colleagues for sharing ideas, taking risks, or asking for feedback. Psychological safety is a sense of belonging, removing the fear of retaliation.

This then begs the question of, well, how do you create psychological safety in the workplace? The first step is consciousness of the issue, along with a commitment to making it happen.

In my experience, it is about small changes starting with how one leads. Psychological safety is set by ‘tone at the top’, with leaders who drive and foster a leadership style and culture which embraces empowering people and giving everyone the confidence to participate in and contribute to decision-making.

This decentralisation does come with risks. It relies on the sort of social contract which exists between, for example, friends. Or even citizens and the government; it is the spirit of cooperation based on mutual trust and respect. The risk, therefore, comes down to that exact differentiator that so many companies point to as their secret sauce: having the right people, who are culturally aligned, and pursuing common goals underpinned by shared values. Along, of course, with the competence and capability necessary for each and every role within the organisation.

In my experience, when psychological safety is consciously applied, it has a marked impact on the growth and performance of individuals. Empowered people are confident; confident people speak their minds and aren’t afraid of sharing new ideas or approaches. Actively fostering mutual respect and acceptance while valuing individual contributions drives results for the team and underpins a culture where it isn’t just about getting things done, but getting things done with camaraderie and common purpose.

Of course, we live in an unsafe world, and my team often deals with the realities of an unsafe world. Our infrastructure is crucial to the company, and it is crucial to people everywhere, who need communications more than ever when things go wrong. We manage the response to disasters (and other problems), sometimes requiring creative solutions and ideas that might be considered a little outside of the box. In this environment, psychological safety is crucial to our success – we’re dealing with hundreds of cell towers, thousands of kilometres of fibre, and most importantly, hundreds of thousands of people, our customers.

We’ve just come out of an unprecedented pandemic. Auckland, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay have borne the brunt of recent severe weather events, and the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes remain in recent memory.

Through all these crises, we’ve seen how decentralising decision-making and putting it in the hands of empowered, confident people has made a real difference. A fundamental difference in how we respond to crisis, reducing our mean time to restore, and innovating with novel solutions as the team has a voice. A real difference in how we attempt to connect impacted communities with their loved ones. Emergencies require rapid, decisive action. Emergencies also mean heightened emotions, high-pressure environments where people’s lives may depend on communications infrastructure, and time-critical activities must be done without delay or indecision.

And even outside of crises, we value wellbeing, trust and belonging, and care about contributions from our colleagues. There is inclusion, you are safe to learn, safe to contribute, safe to challenge the status quo. 
In these circumstances, the real value of psychological safety becomes apparent. People rise to the challenge. We know our team members have our backs. We step up, step in, and make things happen. We work longer hours because we know the crisis doesn’t stop when the clock strikes 5pm. We don’t shy away. We pause and check the wellbeing of team members. We feel safe enough to say we need to step away to regroup without censure.

Creating environments where psychological safety is given due attention does require a new, more empathetic, and more conscious style of leadership. But it isn’t a radical change, because whatever business you are in – whether providing telecommunications solutions, running a supermarket, a consulting company, or anything else – your business is about providing goods and services for people. Psychological safety is about sharpening the focus on the people who make it happen.

And that’s valuable, always.