How To Create Psychological Safety For The People You Lead

Arguably in 2020, psychological safety at work has become even more critical and even more complex as we deal with the economic impacts of a global pandemic, work from home as the new normal and social isolation.

While individuals must be willing to put in the effort and go on a personal growth journey to perform at their best, it is the leaders who must willing to create an environment that offers psychological safety for people to show up, contribute and grow.

So before you think about sales, customer service and shareholder returns, turn your attention to the needs of your people and in particular how to give them the psychological safety they need to adapt and flourish in the new normal.

Here are 5 strategies to create psychological safety for the people you lead.

1 - Understand Their ‘Safety’ Needs

Your people will have specific ways they process and express their psychological and emotional safety needs.

  • People’s psychological and emotional safety needs may be expressed as:
  • I am safe from harassment, prejudice and discrimination
  • I am heard and understood
  • I am included
  • I belong
  • I am valued
  • I am accepted
  • I am respected
  • I can bring my whole self to work
  • I can speak my mind
  • My status, my reputation, my job and my income are safe
  • I will be extended the care, courtesy and respect of early communication if anything was to change

Sometimes people’s needs will be conscious and explicitly stated and other times it will be unconscious and inexplicit.

It’s your job as a leader to help each person uncover, understand and articulate their own needs and for you to be aware and empathetic to their needs.

This is not a one-off process. As you open this conversation and increase trust, people will feel safer to explore and share their thoughts and feelings.


2 - Acknowledge What’s Changed

In life, in our jobs and in business, things are never static, we are always facing micro-changes. That’s why the people and businesses who adapt the fastest survive and thrive the best.

However, what we’ve experienced in 2020 is not a micro-change in any way and while some may have adapted ‘operationally’, for many the psychological and emotional processing is still taking place.

To help with this process, it’s important for leaders to understand and acknowledge what has changed. Part of people’s safety is in knowing that you know how they have been impacted and how they feel.

Examples of things things that have changed include:

  • Working from home and not being able to go out socially has increased feelings of isolation and anxiety
  • Physical distance means people are no longer getting the same connection with their leaders and team. This in turn means they are missing
    • the non-verbal cues of acceptance and inclusion
    • Casual chats in the office
    • Joining the team for lunch
    • Going for a coffee
    • Discussing news and current affairs
    • Constant news of redundancies across industries - will we be next?
    • Home schooling has added new stresses
    • etc

Seek to understand then acknowledge what your team believes has changed for them.

3 - Enhance The Communication Flow

As a leader you always want to create an environment where there is open, respectful and effective communication between the leaders and the team and amongst team members.

Now would be a great time to review what’s working and what’s not.

As a minimum:

Ensure you have scheduled (recurring) one-on-ones with each team member.

This creates a forcing mechanism for you to prepare your thoughts and key messages and creates a safety net for people, knowing there is time for them to discuss anything that is on their mind.

Leverage your collaboration portals (Slack, Microsoft Teams etc)

  • Add (NEW) next to people’s names who are new to the team or company and encourage the rest of the team to make an extra effort in the first 30-60 days to reach out for a call.
  • Schedule or automate posts that get people engaged and allow them to learn more about what they have in common with fellow teammates.
    For example:
    • On Mondays ask “ What did you do on the weekend?”
    • Once a month ask “What book are you reading at the moment?”

4 - Escalate The Priority On Mental And Emotional Wellness Across The Team

It’s not enough with just your People & Culture or Human Resources teams sending out a ‘general message’ about the importance of mental and emotional wellness from time to time.

As a leader of your people, it’s up to you to table the topic and make it an ongoing priority for yourself and your team.

Use your next team meeting as an opportunity to:

  • Talk about the importance of ‘psychological safety’
  • Invite conversations as a group
  • Invite conversations privately
  • Learn what your team needs (identify gaps in your response)
  • Acknowledge what your team feels
  • Remind your team to support one another

Use your next planning session to identify what you could be doing systematically to reduce the risk of oversight.

5 - Mind Your Cues

As a leader, your verbal and non-verbal communication reverberates across your people, customers and business.

Like all humans, sometimes you are conscious and explicit and other times you are unconscious and inexplicit. The difference is as a leader the depth and impact of your communication is far reaching, everyone is looking up to you for direction and support.

You have the tricky task of finding the right balance in communicating in a way that is transparent and vulnerable versus communicating in a way that is not well considered (mild case) or reckless (extreme case), triggering one or more fears (not meeting the safety needs).

Given the heightened sensitivity, take an opportunity to consider how you communicate, what words you use, what non-verbal messages you send and what impact you’re having on your team.

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