Three ways leaders can create ‘Psychological Safety’ in the workplace
What’s one most important factor in creating an effective work environment?
As I enter the 8th year in my career, moving into a mid-level position, I’ve come to learn the importance of creating ‘Safety’ in the workplace.
Now what comes to your mind when you read the word ‘Safety’? Is it ‘Gender Discrimination?’, ‘Sexual Harassment’, ‘Physical Harm’, ‘Accidents’, ‘Verbal abuse’? The list goes on.
For me, some of the most difficult (and some heartbreaking) moments I witnessed in my career are:
- Having a team mate cry and break down due to unfairness and seniority-biased treatment in the workplace (while working late till midnight in the workplace)
- Hearing a team mate speak about how she was verbally and emotionally abused by a male boss, and when she brought it up to the Chief Ethics Officer in the firm, the male boss got a verbal warning, and she decided to transfer to another team.
- Seeing people become defensive at work to protect themselves
- Hearing people speak about what they hope to get and what they believe they deserve, yet keep quiet in front of their bosses
Through these moments, different areas of topics come to my mind — such as ‘Gender Equality’, ‘Confidence’, ‘Speaking Up’, ‘People Management’. Each of them I feel strongly for and believe in.
Yet, there was a recent project at work that I was embarking on, that shed light into new areas of growth for myself. It was a challenging client, a client that is unpredictable, think ‘Execution’ > ‘Strategic’, and brings forth additional requests in the midst of the project when project scope has been locked in. Not only that, it was our first time delivering such a project. No one in the team had experience with such a new scope of project. With these uncertainty and unpredictability, it brought out a different side of me — one that even I was caught off-guard, it was very unlike the usual me at work.
To provide some context, it was a small team and I felt a huge accountability and responsibility in ensuring client satisfaction and a successful project outcome. With that, I find myself turning slightly defensive in the client meetings whenever the client puts forth an additional request– a request that we had no prior experience in. I felt myself taking on ‘bad cop’ role (hardly a role I usually take with clients), constantly trying my best to ‘push back’, manage expectations and ensure that the team has capability and capacity to deliver within the project timeline. The project turned out to be successful and clients were satisfied with the outcome. The team was happy and it was great.
Upon reflection, I felt that I could have led the project better. I noticed how I responded in times of uncertainty and unpredictability, how I had a stronger-than-usual protective shield for my team (and for myself). There was so much to learn from this challenging experience. I gathered feedback from my manager and from my juniors (I find it important to take a 360-degree feedback, even if it is not a formal appraisal procedure. It is starting to become a habit now). My manager noticed what I noticed as well, indicating room for improvement. While my juniors had nothing but praise, of how they enjoyed working with me and on this project, and how clear the directions are for them, making it easier for them to execute, despite the tight timeline.
I brewed on this side of me that came up for a bit, trying to figure what is the root cause of this unfamiliar reaction/response that I have in the workplace. This was how the factor of ‘Safety’ came to mind as ‘Eureka’.
I come to realise that I felt unsafe at that period. With a new project that no one had prior experience on, clients that are unpredictable and difficult to manage, a short and fixed timeline with a ‘constantly growing’ project scope, I felt unsafe. As much as I yearn to achieve the best and successful project outcome, I was not confident. Yes, I could perhaps be more optimistic. But deep inside, I was afraid. I did not feel that the manager would/could protect us, I felt that if I didn’t step in to manage, this heavy load would fall upon me and my juniors, beyond what we could handle. In short, I was afraid we would ‘fail’. And I really did not want that.
These are raw, deepest emotions that I am sharing with vulnerability right now– words that are hard to say, and seemingly best to stay quiet of within the workplace.
Sometimes, ‘Fear’ can make it hard for us to be honest–honest with ourselves, and honest with others, as we take the easy way out. And we move on to the next project, or the next job. Many things left unsaid and unheard. Even emotions within us.
Here are 3 key learnings of what I believe leaders can do to create a safe environment in the workplace:
1. Ask Your Team Members How They Are, How They Feel, If They Need Additional Support
One of the positive feedback I received from my juniors was how (despite the heavy workload and stress), she felt that I was there to support her, indicating one of the moments she vividly remembered was me asking ‘if she is managing fine and if she require more support’. I wouldn’t have thought she would remember a simple question of mine, yet it did. It shows what it takes to let your team know that ‘they are not alone in this and we are a team’ – just a simple question.
2. Be Open, Honest & Transparent With Your Team Members (Even If It’s Our Mistake We Are Solving)
We can’t promise work to always be smooth-sailing, and for everyone to get what they want. However, as a leader, we can be open, honest and transparent with our team in the challenges we are facing, be it internally, or from the client. Even if the current challenge is an aftermath of a mistake we have done. Don’t cover it or pretend it isn’t there, address the elephant in the room, and solve it together. Even if it is not the perfect scenario, everyone is on the same page on why they are in the current situation, what they are trying to solve and has a common goal. Remember, we are a team. And even if something is not addressed or spoken does not mean it is not there.
3. Be Empathetic, Sincere and Acknowledge.
It’s okay to acknowledge, for e.g. that this is a challenging task, that everyone is tired, that he/she wants a promotion, that this is not the most exciting project, etc. Respect that we are all human, regardless of seniority, gender and background, that all of us have emotions, and taking time out to work on something together (even if it is a paid job). No matter what challenge we face as leaders (even if it may not be an issue we can directly solve), acknowledge it, be empathetic and most importantly, be sincere.
What are you thoughts and perspectives on how to create a ‘safe environment’ in the workplace? Feel free to comment below.