Why is psychological safety so hard?

We need to accept that we're emotional and irrational creatures

Psychological safety is well-known as the most important factor for efficient teams and workplace satisfaction. So why are so many workplaces still full of fear and mistrust? Psychological safety does not come cheap, and it is not something you can buy. It is not a tool, which is probably why many companies find it so hard to obtain and retain. To begin, you need to accept that we’re all emotional and irrational creatures. Yourself included.

We're not analytical, rational professionals

On the professional stage we expect people – and especially ourselves - to be analytical and rational. But we got that all wrong. In reality we are emotional, irrational human beings, like behavioural science has now proved over and over. Yet, we can’t seem to wrap our heads around that. But as Chris Voss writes in his book “Never split the difference”, acknowledging that we are emotional, irrational beasts and acting on it, is the most rational thing to do.

Acting on it means to start treating people in the workplace like humans, not machines. To start with, we need to create an environment of trust. Trust is hard to build, but so easy to destroy, so trust needs to be nurtured every day. In any relationship. We also need to let feelings exist. Good or bad. Because, we are humans and humans have feelings.

“Acknowledging that we are emotional, irrational beasts and acting on it, is the most rational thing to do.”
Chris Voss

When push comes to shove

Office party speeches often contain variations of “people first”. But when push comes to shove, profit often wins. When leaders are under pressure, when having to choose between right and right, or when the company is a crisis, this is a moment of truth. We make decisions – very often out of fear – and these decisions might not be for people’s best, when your business education has taught you that the rational thing to do is to cut cost, or your board or shareholders only care about the financial bottom line.

Being under pressure can also cause leaders to act – yes – irrationally - in the day-to-day life. Because leaders are humans too. Trust needs to be nurtured and role modeled by leaders, so we need to acknowledge that we, too are irrational, emotional beasts. But how do we do that? Here are a few tips:

  • Start by allowing feelings to exist, including your own. All feelings are legitimate, but how you act on them is a choice.

  • Let your values guide your choices and take the time to think holistically and long-term before making a choice that affects other people.

  • Be the person others can trust. Be open to people’s ideas, fears and stories. Make sure to never use anything they tell you against them.

  • Have compassion for yourself and others. Forgive people, and most of all forgive yourself for making mistakes. Role model compassion by being vulnerable and by letting people make mistakes.

“All feelings are legitimate, but how you act on them is a choice.”
Ulla Sommerfelt, CEO of EGGS Design

The road to compassion

When you have compassion in the workplace, work can become a sanctuary; a place to feel safe, also when your private life or the world is a mess. But the road to compassion is slippery. It has ditches on each side that we tend to fall into.

The Ditch of Niceness

On the one side of the road to compassion there is “The Ditch of Niceness”. Compassion is not about being nice, or over feeling on behalf of others. Hanging out in the Ditch of Niceness is not productive in the workplace. When you avoid dealing with difficult matters or shy away from conflict, you actually hurt people more than when you give constructive feedback. Remember: clarity is kind.

The Niceness Ditch is filled with pity, niceness, overfeeling and avoidance and can be a destructive environment for both yourself and other.

The Asshole Ditch

On the other side of the road is what I call the Asshole Ditch. This is the ditch we tend to fall into when we are in a toxic work environment with sharp elbows and unhealthy internal competition. This is where fear and greed and power games thrive. When we are under pressure, lose our temper and start yelling at people around us we slide right into that ditch. Beware that aggressive behaviour is contagious, so don't stick around in that ditch.

The Asshole Ditch is filled with fear, greed, power games and general ass**** behaviour. It's a toxic environment where no one thrives and innovation and personal growth is stifled.
Psychological safety requires enough trust to be open with peers and managers and enough compassion to allow for feelings and mistakes.
Ulla Sommerfelt

We fall into these ditches all the time. And when you do; crawl back up on the road, dust off the dirt, forgive yourself, say “I’m sorry” to the people you hurt, keep calm and ride on. Work environments can be toxic both with too much niceness and with too much anger and fear. Psychological safety requires enough trust to be open with peers and managers and enough compassion to allow for feelings and mistakes.

Which of these ditches do you tend to fall into? Are you a hot head who barks at people when you get stressed out, or use sharp elbows to get your way to the top? Or do you shy away from conflict and hope that unfortunate situations solve themselves, or just refrain from dealing with difficult stuff?

Sounds interesting?

Ulla Sommerfelt

You should talk to Co-founder
Ulla Sommerfelt
+47 922 97 440

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