5 min read

Safe House

Safe House
Look at him! So intense. All credit to Universal Pictures

Everyone wants to feel safe.

That statement is as true for our professional lives as it is for our personal ones, perhaps even more so.

When you feel safe, when you know that the people around you are going to support you no matter what happens, then there is no limit to the amazing things you can do for the organisation, your teammates and yourself.

Unsurprisingly, creating that level of safety is hard.

But it's worth it.


Psychological safety is the fundamental belief that you will not be punished, humiliated, or otherwise made to feel terrible for speaking your mind and sharing your ideas, thoughts, questions, concerns and mistakes.

It is the surety that no matter what happens, the people around you and the people responsible for you will have your back. That if you create a problem or make a mistake of some sort, those people will work with you to resolve it and then learn lessons for the future.

Teams that have a high level of psychological safety are more likely to take risks, which can lead to more innovative approaches to solving problems and more efficient ways of executing work.

Not only that, but team members who feel psychologically safe are happier, more satisfied with their job and more likely to stick it out through tough times. You know, like when an organisation is going through the fires of disruptive change with the intent to forge it into something greater.

Not that I would know anything about that.

This House Was A Secure Location

Actually establishing a psychologically safe environment is an exercise in consistency. It's a lot like building trust in that respect.

Some of the required aspects are easy, assuming you follow the basic principle of not being a jerk. Don't cut people down when they speak up and share an idea, don't make people feel bad for screwing up and don't treat the asking of questions as something to be ashamed of.

Beyond that, there is an irritatingly large amount of subtlety to building and maintaining psychological safety. Every person is different, and as a result, not everyone reacts to the same stimulus in the same way. An environment that encourages robust challenging of opinions and ideas can feel very safe to one person and extremely unsafe to another.

Things that are out of your control complicate matters further, like organisational policies and processes. You might be doing everything that you can as a local leader, yet still be losing the war as a result global effects.

Take performance evaluations for example.

If there is an organisational mandate for more robust performance evaluation, it can make people feel like they are under constant pressure to perform, that there is no longer any room to take risks and make mistakes and that any deviation from expectations will be held against them.

This sort of thing leads to a reduction in the overall level of psychological safety.

Obviously, that's not the point of better performance evaluations; they are about pushing people to be more awesome and to identify (and help) those that are struggling, but balancing those desired outcomes against the reality of how it makes people feel is difficult.

Another thing that doesn't help with psychological safety is change.

Most organisations change over time, but that sort of gradual mutation isn't the problem. The issue comes when there is a lot of change over a short period of time and the motivations for the change are not easy to understand.

This creates fear. Things are moving, relationships are shifting, and old patterns and expectations no longer hold true.

Fear is the enemy of safety.

If you're really unlucky, when people try to speak up and voice their fears and concerns, the organisation will attempt to crack down on "negativity". That sort of thing just makes the situation worse, creating a negative feedback loop which can have catastrophic effects even if the original change was not particularly catastrophic itself.

You're Not Gonna Get In My Head

I'm not actually sure if I'm good at establishing a psychologically safe environment.

It's not that I'm a jerk or anything.

Well, I don't think I'm a jerk anyway and no-one has told me, so I'm probably not a jerk.

I try to hold myself accountable to all the behaviours expected of a leader that are aligned with psychologically safe environments, like:

  • Avoiding blaming people if mistakes are made, focusing instead on the lessons learned
  • Encouraging open discourse on topics, but still stepping in to make decisions as necessary to keep things moving forward
  • Setting a good example by sharing my own thoughts and emotions openly and honestly
  • Always responding to questions or concerns first with acknowledgement and then with clarification or reassurance as appropriate

But I don't know if it's enough.

I think I fall flat in two areas.

The first is that I'm naturally inquisitive. I want to understand things, so that I can connect the dots and offer my own ideas to whatever the situation is.

As a result, I ask pointed questions and I think those questions can make people uncomfortable, especially because they are coming from a figure of authority.

An example of this is if someone has to delay the target delivery date for a project because of some change. I'm interested so I'll ask questions; I want to understand what has changed, if it's important, whether or not there are any other options we should consider, etc.

That sort of interrogation, even if it's meant well, can be quite confronting and I think people take the preponderance of questions to indicate a lack of trust, which is definitely not the intent.

I just want to understand and help.

The second area that I fall flat in is relationship building.

I don't actually think I'm very good with people, which is somewhat ironic, given that I'm a manager by trade.

I try to empathise with people as much as possible, listen to them and acknowledge their feelings, pay attention to the details, share interests when I can and all of the things that help to build and maintain relationships. But I tire of that sort of thing easily, and while I still go through the motions as best I can, I think people can tell.

Working primarily remotely exacerbates this issue, because there are less casual connections to help shore up the gaps. Instead, you only get formalised and scheduled interactions, which often happen when I am at my most fatigued.

My hypothesis is that those two aspects of my personality (inquisitive nature and the fact that I am easily socially fatigued), when combined, can lead to people feeling less psychological safe in situations where I am the leader.

So, I'll just have to work on them, because safety is important, and there are enough other things happening that are eroding that feeling of security that I don't want to add to the pile.

I'm Already In Your Head!

This is one of those blog posts where I'm not really sure if I've actually said anything useful. I did ramble a bunch though.

I also worked through some stuff for my own benefit, which was useful to me at least.

Anyway, psychological safety good. Do whatever you can to build it and then vigorously defend it against everything that wants to tear it down.

Also, don't be a jerk.