About Psychological Safety
Psychological Safety – describes an organizational culture wherein people feel able to speak up without fear of retribution. Amy Edmondson, renowned author, social science researcher and Harvard professor, defined the term as, “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” ( The Fearless Organization, pg.8). Tim Clark, Founder of LeaderFactor, and the creator of the 4 Levels of Psychological Safety, says it’s “an environment of rewarded vulnerability.”
From decades of social science research, it is clear that psychological safety is vital for high performing organizations. It’s paramount for employee morale and engagement, learning and knowledge sharing, performance, reporting errors or mistakes, and contributing ideas for improvement. In a well-known study of what constitutes a high performing team, Google discovered that psychological safety was the most important factor, a necessary component for all other markers of success.
Organizations that don’t create space for their team members to be themselves – to be different, ask questions without fear of looking dumb, make mistakes without embarrassment, ask for help without retribution, take a risk, and contribute their strengths – suffer the consequences. An atmosphere of fear and retribution forces self-protection and silence, leading to individual pain and fatal organizational errors (see The Fearless Organization for examples of large corporate failures).
My Personal Experience
As a young consultant, I was given an exceptionally challenging assignment to review a client’s work processes and prepare recommendations for improvement. When I approached a colleague, a subject matter expert, to brainstorm ideas, she told me that she couldn’t; our director wanted me to “prove myself”.
Feeling inadequate and paralyzed, I confronted my boss and asked why he was preventing my peers from talking with me about the project. I expressed my trepidation for speaking up, as I feared it would be held against me in my performance evaluation. He thanked me, promised it wouldn’t, and much to my surprise reassigned the project to another consultant. As predicted, it showed up in my yearly review – apparently, I was not an independent thinker. And so the story goes, I left for greener pastures.
My (unknowing) experiment of being vulnerable in an unsafe environment didn’t work. I became more cautious about speaking up at work.
Herein lies the dilemma: individuals first need to feel psychologically safe, in order for a psychologically safe culture to take hold; interpersonal trust must first be intact at the team level. It is up to each individual team member to create that trust. And this takes a lot of work, sustained energy, and a structured and measured approach.
Enter – Psychological Type
Psychological Type – is a dynamic theory of personality created by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. His theory explains the different ways in which people most naturally focus their psychological energy or awareness; it is about how we see the world, and how that colors our behavior.
Application of the theory provides teams with increased self and other awareness, fostering a deeper sense of safety to be oneself. The awareness that Type brings naturally propels a safer environment throughout the organization.
Beyond the Obvious
Type shows us that differences between people are real and observable. This may sound like a blinding glimpse of the obvious. We know that other people are different from us, and we accept and honor differences, all of the time, right? Don’t we wish!
In fact, in just 0.07 seconds our brain senses whether or not to trust someone; and we are more likely to trust someone who is more like us than not (see Conversational Intelligence by the late Judith Glaser). We constantly, often unconsciously, compare ourselves to others. When we sense a difference, uncertainty and fear sends our primitive brains into high gear, quickly pulling the emergency brake. We make assumptions about the other that lead to negative judgments.
When teams are exposed to Psychological Type as a framework for making sense of behavior, team members are challenged to alter their assumptions about each other. Negative judgments fall away paving a path to more connection.
From Flighty to an Appreciation for Creative Contributions
For example, a team member labeled as flighty selects a preference for Extraverted Intuition in a workshop. Her natural communication style – contextual jumping topics to connect the dots – now makes sense to her teammates. It comes directly from how she sees the world; through a continual stream of possibilities and making connections between things that others may not see. She becomes someone who can be counted on to passionately contribute to creative brainstorming sessions.
From Slow to an Appreciation for Accurate Data
Or, the team member, who before a workshop was thought to be slow to catch on and express thoughts. Some teammates assumed his silence to be indicative of hoarding data for competitive advantage. His teammates came to see that his Dominant Function of Introverted Sensing, an internal mental process that methodically compares past experiences to the current situation, was at work. His teammates gave him space to think about and gather data prior to a meeting, and they began to listen more intently to the data he presented.
An understanding of Psychological Type can help teams reframe behavior that seemed suspect, or laden with negative judgment, as simply a function of people using different Mental Functions. This opening up – through increasing self and other awareness at a measured pace – goes a long way to create environments where people feel safe to be themselves. Its a powerful foundation for integrating psychological safety throughout the organization.
To learn more about how Psychological Type lays the foundation for Psychological Safety, and what it can bring to your organization, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.