Psychological safety : the individual’s perspective

Last week I wrote about Psychological Safety from the perspective of a leader trying to create that environment for their team or business. But what about the individual? Do they have to just wait for someone else to come and create that for them? You can probably guess that’s a no — but read on to explore more…


Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

I can’t work with that person they’re so intimidating.

This team just seems incapable of a decision and drive me crazy going round in circles.

I’m too introverted to get my point across, the extroverts just take over.

Nobody ever listens to each other. It’s pointless.

All possible scenarios where we can drop into the role of victim, believing that we need a rescuer to come and change things for us. The leader in his coat of shining armour who will take responsibility for the dynamic and make it all better.

And yes, leaders have an out-weighted role when it comes to the kind of environments created at work and in meetings — and — sometimes they won’t even be aware of challenging environments, let alone do anything to change them.

But what if it was possible to create a psychologically safe environment for yourself without any leader creating that environment for you, without any member of the team being held to account by the boss for their behaviour, without any processes or practices being applied to give everyone a fair chance to speak and without any passive aggressive behaviour like in this video!

It sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? I remember thinking this before I started working with a transformational coach a year ago, but I (and many others) are living proof that this is possible.

And through this experience, not only do you create a psychologically safe environment for yourself, but others then show up differently around you, resulting in some of those apparently problematic behaviours disappearing.

So how do we do this?

Similar to last week’s post, there are two ways we can approach it — the normal way or the natural way.

Option 1 — The normal way — “do it”

From here we attempt to rescue ourselves by fixing the problem out there. We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and give oursleves a talking to — ‘come on [insert own name], this can’t go on’.

We look to things out there to be fixed and changed because they are what’s bad or wrong or broken.

This could mean we assume the role that the leader of the team “should” have been holding— talking to people to give feedback, suggesting different meeting approaches, inviting people to speak who haven’t spoken, introducing decision-making tools.

Or we leave the team or business.

Or perhaps we erupt in the middle of a meeting, no longer able to contain the frustration with the situation.

All are possible, none are right or wrong.

But where is the action arising from?

When arising from a perceived need to be rescued from an apparently broken experience, it will always — always — come from insecurity. The very nature of an un-examined mind, or ego, is insecurity so it can’t help but act from that place.

An un-examined mind works in a very base and fixed way: We like this, we don’t like that. You should behave like this, you shouldn’t behave like that. I want this, I don’t want that. And the security of OK-ness — it seems — will only be found when all this stuff out there conforms to the way I think it should be.

These thoughts, flying around in an un-examined mind, are believed to be true, believed to be ‘our’s’ and believed to be important to pay attention to. We think that if they’re not followed everything will go wrong, anarchy, chaos!

And yet you are only catching sight of a few of them — the ones that match with a backstory of thoughts that you’ve curated through your life.

And you are so busy paying attention to these that you’ve not realised that it is these very thoughts that are leading to a feeling of insecurity. An insecurity that feels yuk, and keeps you striving to make it stop.

As we start to explore, inquire and examine, we discover that it’s in fact not ‘out there’ that’s creating the yukky, insecure experience.

These very thoughts are keeping you from the psychological safety you seek.

Option 2 — The natural way — “be it”

Last time, in the ‘natural way’ section, I wrote how:

Our innate nature, the absence of ego, is compassion, connection, clarity and creativity. Our innate nature is to listen with presence and attention for the other. Like the screen on which the movie plays, this innate nature can’t help but be seen when the movie of ego stops.

And the same is true here.

Leaders aren’t a unique breed of human, they don’t have some magic capacity that the rest of us lack. Watch little kids (ideally under 2) and see how they just connect and create and decide, naturally. We are all that.

Notice the times when this has been true for you.

It might be that, till now, you’ve experienced these moments of presence and connection outside of work, maybe with close friends, a partner or kids. That these are the places where security and psychological safety are most found.

It’s easy to assume that it’s only these close, special, personal relationships that are allowed to have these features so we’ve never questioned why they’re not present at work.

But, in the same way that leaders don’t have these special, magic capacities, so too with the type of relationship — it’s not true that some relationships have special, magic capacities and others don’t.

It’s you. Yes you, and that annoying person on the team, and that intimidating person, and that loud extroverted person, and that one who debates round and round.

No exception.

The only difference in a work setting is that you have different thoughts about what work means and these thoughts have become entangled in your mind with who you think you are.

You’ve believed that work (the industry you’re in, the level you’re at, the amount you earn, the type of work you do) in some way reflects who you are and therefore if work is not playing by your rules of ‘good’, that means you’re also ‘not good’.

No wonder we’re going to feel scared, insecure and psychologically unsafe if we’re relying on the ever-changing landscape of work and all the characters in it to provide our sense of security.

It’s not work making you feel unsafe, it’s your thinking about work.

A ‘normal way’ approach to this would be to jump in quick and fix your thinking but this just keeps us stuck in the same loop. Chasing these thoughts round and round our intellectual mind with a giant-holed butterfly net.

Don’t bother. Save your energy for something more valuable.

Know they’re not who you are.

Start to notice when there’s a “should” behind them. Notice when the same ones come round again and again. Notice how your experience changes as your thinking changes — naturally, without your involvement.

Again, pause, don’t get drawn by the ‘normal way’ to jump in and change the thoughts. They can’t help it. See them with compassion.

Pay attention to the times when you’re in connection, in real presence and listening, in flow. Notice how those insecure, “should” thoughts aren’t present there.

Then see how your experience changes. Then see how conversations, meetings and interactions improve.

See how you speak up whether the extroverts are speaking or not. Notice how you naturally ask if the group’s ready to close to a decision. Notice how you can’t help but listen and include. Notice how you decide to leave with an obviousness of conviction but with no grudges in sight.

Rather than arising from insecurity, as in the ‘normal way’, all of these are now arising from your innate magic capacity and automatically with a strong, sense of calm, clear integrity which others can’t help but feel.

You don’t need psychological safety. You are psychological safety.

With love, Helen

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