The thing you don’t want to hear about psychological safety

Ever since Google came out with their report about high performing teams “psychological safety” has been a buzzword that everyone seems to love to talk about. That’s a good thing, psychological safety is something we all should strive for, to create an environment where we can express our thoughts and ideas without fear of judgement or resentment. This leaves us with an important question though, how do we create psychological safety?

We often misinterpret what it means to be safe

Oftentimes people misinterpret safety as being familiar with each other. A lot of teams have told me that they’re unable to open up and talk to each other because they don’t know each other well or they haven’t worked together for a long time. There is a lot of merit to this, familiarity helps us build safety but they aren’t the same thing. Being familiar with each other means I know your tendencies, I know how you might react to what I say but it doesn’t mean I’ll be willing to talk to you about the important things. Teams can work together for months but still have important topics they keep inside because they’re afraid of hurting each other’s feelings or afraid to think differently.

The other thing that people confuse safety with is with liking each other. Being safe means going out for lunch together, taking an interest in their pets or being close outside of work are all good things but that’s not what safety is either. It’s easier for us to be safe with people we like and people we trust but its not what safety is.

Then what is safety?

Safety is when you would talk about things because it needs to be talked about. It is feeling that you can go against the popular opinion and people will hear you out. It is the feeling that you can challenge each other without it devolving into a shouting match. Safety is when you can admit that you don’t know something without fear that your peers will laugh at or dismiss you. Safety is permission to be vulnerable, I don’t need to like you or to have known you forever for me to be safe with you.

How do we create safety?

The people who ask me this are often managers, facilitators or other coaches. There is this idea that that we can create safety with how we facilitate, with how we plan and structure events or even with how we speak. That’s only partially true. Facilitators can set the scene, go over ground rules and say that it is a safe space until they are blue in the face but until someone takes a leap of faith and becomes vulnerable it isn’t truly a safe space.

When someone takes a leap of faith and is vulnerable to the group they give others permission to do the same. It is the simple truth to creating safety, someone has to do it first. Now here’s the part you probably don’t want to hear, that someone is you.