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3 Ways that Conversations Drive Psychological Safety at Work

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Yekemi Otaru

3 Ways that Conversations Drive Psychological Safety at Work

Something wasn’t right. I shared my concerns with one of the team leaders about what was happening in the group. His response suggested that I keep my worries to myself, as he reveals: “You’ll be seen as a troublemaker if you bring that up!”

I didn’t feel safe afterwards and always felt like I had to keep things to myself and only share “good news”. I worried about making mistakes and being punished for having views that didn’t suit the status quo. In the end, the group broke down with several people leaving and others barely coping with the deepening façade.

The best performing teams feel safe enough to make mistakes, speak their minds and stick their necks out. This feeling of security in your environment is psychological safety. I’m passionate about it because I know how it feels not to have it. Now leading my teams, I’m committed to creating and maintaining psychological safety. It doesn’t just make mental-health sense – it makes business sense too. Research shows that workplace stress leads to almost 50% attrition and 37% more absenteeism, reducing profit by 16%.

Psychological safety is fragile. Yet, it is key to business success and more so in uncertain times. Leaders must build and nurture it. In 2019, I wrote 7 Ways That We Drive Psychological Safety At Work, outlining what we do at Doqaru to support a positive work culture.

The last eighteen months bring some new thoughts of the role of conversations. I will share them in this blog.

 

Uncover the motives of each team member

Growing up, I was taught to treat people how I want to be treated. But it doesn’t seem right if you’re going to create a safe culture. It would be best if you treated people how THEY want to be treated. We are not all motivated the same way, and we change! The lack of a defined workplace could negatively impact motivation and, in turn, cause your best-performing staff to change. Spend time talking to your team and understanding what each of them cares about. When you know this, you are more likely to treat them how they want to be treated – motivating them to achieve what they want for themselves.

We often assume that people are like us. I’m energetic, a clear thinker and very driven, with intrinsic motives. Yet, I could be leading people who are more easy-going and tranquil. They might also be efficient and thrive in a closely-knit community. I’ve learned not to mistake “easy-going” with “not driven” and “driven” with “extrinsic motivation”. We are all unique, coming from diverse backgrounds and experiences that shape how we act and view the world. As a leader, I must be opened to understanding people rather than making assumptions. The better I get at this; the safer people will feel about expressing themselves.

 

psychological safety doqaru

 

Encourage open discussions with the whole team

With remote working likely to be the norm for a while, some staff might feel isolated or struggle to ask questions and get their ideas across. Find ways to encourage team discussions by using features such as anonymous polls or hand raising, for instance. At the very least, ask if anyone has questions or something more to share.

In 2009, I took my first leadership role. I learned not to ignore quiet people. It was my default to overlook those who didn’t speak up. I figured that they either had nothing to say or what they had to say wasn’t necessary. I was wrong. As part of the opening discussion, leave space, use silence, ask direct questions to specific people and don’t hurry to move on. If specific staff are reticent, continue the conversation in a one-to-one meeting.

 

Be open-minded as you enter difficult conversations

Leaders can’t escape difficult conversations. You might need to have such discussions with staff, suppliers, and customers. There’s often a pre-deposition before we enter a difficult conversation. It could be that you think you know a person’s motives, or you have a prepared solution. It’s natural to want to make up your mind beforehand – it gives you a sense of control. But it doesn’t lend itself well to a productive conversation. We end up not listening, simply waiting for the other people to finish so that we can spill our prepared response.

Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason. They are tough, especially if you want an outcome that is positive for all parties involved. I’ve learned to enter these conversations with an open mind if possible. For me, that means a willingness to listen and an openness to learn. It doesn’t mean being unprepared and weak. Leadership comes with many responsibilities, but it doesn’t have a mandate to have all the answers. Listening and learning could be all it takes to make a person feel understood and safe.

If you’re working towards a psychologically safe workplace, that’s amazing! Psychological safety in workplaces are rare. It’s not easy, as companies often leave culture to chance. However, business performance, staff productivity and the state of our mental health depend on it.

What are some things that have helped you feel safe to be yourself at work?

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