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How to create 'Psychological Safety'& not 'false security'

In such changed and still changing times, it is tempting for leaders to take the 'safe' option and avoid conflict at any cost. Understandably, we want to keep everyone on board with the strain of remote working and 'Zoom-itis' creeping in. However, by opting for 'safe' over 'sorry ', we put our collective IQ at risk and there is an alternative. It is time to spotlight ‘psychological safety’ where it's OK to disagree and even to make mistakes and here are some ways to achieve it:

1. Make the Time

Trust is like good science, it simply takes time. There are no shortcuts. It builds through a shared history of regular and frequent exposure and stands up to testing. Increasingly, however, work is becoming a series of short projects (or in Agile-speak "sprints") by virtual teams across multiple domains. While trust is one-to-one, these are about a collective effort and depend on open exchange, challenging one another and rigorous thinking While it isn’t easy, creating the necessary ‘psychological safety’ is at least faster.

2. Encourage Speaking up

It can be even harder to express a different opinion in remote conversations. The negative effect of this is worsened by the fact that it’s also tougher for managers to read when people are holding back or simply agreeing for politeness sake. To encourage people to “unmute”, we can make it safer to say the ‘wrong’ thing. Why not rotate the role of ‘devil’s advocate’ to encourage the necessary challenge that even good ideas need. Testing the rationale before we roll out something new will get us better buy-in from the outset and save time in the long-run.

3. Take a relational risk

As managers, people look to us for solutions but what if providing these creates a false sense of security? After all, the more technically complex a task, the less likely it is that any single person will generate the unique insights consistently. Instead, encourage people to see you less as a solutions provider than a solutions enabler. It is fine to be directive and give clear instructions in a crisis but you can unintentionally create the next one unless staff are supported to choose to be responsible.

4. Have hard conversations

Telling anyone to be take more personally responsible dosn't work when this is under a threat. The days of carrot-and-stick management are well behind us and actually cause unnecessary stress for illusory control. The first and most important conversation you may need to have is with yourself. Do you like to be seen as the expert and to give your staff ‘right answers’? This might get the job done today but the pitfall is that you're replacing your expertise for their opportunity to learn. Coaching is a process. You may need to unlearn the habit of giving solutions and instead give staff enough room to create their own.

5. Be open to failure

There are many types of failure and some are even worth celebrating. Believe it or not, companies like Eli Lilly, a world leading vaccine developer actually host ‘failure parties’. In fact, this isn’t surprising as vaccine manufacturing is notoriously tricky and so mistakes are even necessary. ‘Intelligent failures’ occur when these mistakes produce valuable discoveries. Be on the look-out for these more as increasingly, the outcome of our work is unknowable before we start. Mark these failures as part of the learning journey to create ‘psychological safety ‘ and an openness that will help avoid ‘preventable’ ones. In fact, if we’re willing to put our hands up quickly when mistakes occur, we might even reduce ‘complex’ failures i.e. when internal risk factors and external change collide.

The ideas above derive from ‘Safe Uncertainty’, a systemic approach for groups dealing with change and complexity. To learn how to implement this in your team or business, you can contact us through and also subscribe to our free monthly newsletter.


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