“This is a safe space” For who? How do you know?! We can never really control or accurately predict what people will find more or less safe, however this doesn’t mean we should give up entirely. It’s important to keep learning from our experiences which starts with knowing what our own experiences are and then being able to share it with the people around us.
Recently, in the second conversation of the making (some) sense series we’re running, we talked about when we speak up about our experiences at work - and when we think we can’t. We talked about needing to feel “safe enough” to do so, and this got me thinking more about what we really mean by feeling “safe”, and why it’s important.
When hosting these calls, we try to make it an experience that works for people with different preferences for interacting in groups. For example, when people enter the Zoom room, not knowing who will be there, we give everyone a chance to speak to aid connection. However, some people might feel pressure to speak up. Each of us joins not knowing what will happen in the call, but as the facilitators, we give an outline of the plan to possibly help ease anxiety. We use small group/pair breakout rooms in case people find speaking up in the wider group intimidating. Despite this, people might find smaller groups much more alarming due to their intimacy - it’s harder to blend into the crowd.
Whatever we do, there will be an element of uncertainty and risk, as all interactions with humans are unpredictable and we are always improvising.
When it is useful
Work on psychological safety has come from wanting to have more human experiences of work and to feel we can share our identity/preferences/personality without fear of negative repercussions. We would like to speak up about what we need and for that to not be detrimental to our value and well-being at work. People in organisations have been treated in a variety of violent ways over the years, and of course, this still continues today. Those with marginalised identities have faced this to an even greater extent. This is incredibly important to continue to address, find ways to talk about it and not just assume we are making progress because time is passing.
In psychological safety resources, such as this blog from Amy Edmonson and Per Hugander, we are recommended to focus on performance, training, using visualisation and normalising vulnerability. Other advice is to ask more questions, ‘be inclusive’ and that leaders must role-model particular behaviours. Through these strategies, safety will be achieved. These are not necessarily unhelpful suggestions, but I want to think critically about the ideas they are rooted in….
Organisations are typically hierarchical places with CEOs, senior leadership, managers, right ‘down’ to the people who clean the office space. There is competition around who receives promotions, pay rises and other opportunities. This is all taking place as part of a capitalist society, which rewards us for being bigger, faster, better individuals. All of this is inherently unsafe as our needs like health, rest, connection, nurturing and healing are deprioritised and seen as inconveniences.
Cultural patterns are difficult to disturb in organisations and society. Asking people to be more vulnerable in front of a leader who is choosing who to give a pay rise, isn’t simple. Sticking to the hours you are contracted for might not feel possible when your colleagues are working longer and there are subtly-disciplining comments about ‘doing what the organisation/team needs’ or ‘going the extra mile’. A short training in biases won’t unlearn years of learning those biases. Taking opportunities to rest is hard in a world that tells us that our time must be productive (and rest is not seen as such) and our value as a human is lower when we do not achieve adequate ongoing success.
Punishment and reward
Since we were young, we have been taught through parenting, education and justice systems to strive for rewards and avoid punishments. Punishments lead to fear, guilt and shame and of course, we want to avoid that. We are taught to be nice and polite and that makes us ‘good’. We think people need to deserve nice things and bad people deserve punishments, rather than trying to understand the human needs which are met or unmet when people enact a particular behaviour.
Advocates of psychological safety who suggest a focus on individual’s achievements to enable safety can perpetuate the system that rewards being ‘good’ - meaning there must be a ‘bad/wrong’ behaviour. We are then often acting out of fear. Instead, how can we find out what needs are being met/unmet for people when working together and what strategies we could try to meet more of our needs?
If a colleague keeps talking over me during a meeting, I could explore why I feel so irritated (not meeting my need to be heard, contribution or care) as well as the needs that they are trying to meet (possibly efficiency, connection as well as contribution or wanting to be heard). We don’t need to agree with a behaviour to be curious about why it is happening and what it is triggering. In my experience, this leads to a more nuanced understanding of each other and meaningful and long-lasting change - though it’s not necessarily easy.
The importance of exclusion
Conversations about safe spaces are often paired with ideas of inclusion as something we must always be striving for. However, there are times when exclusion is necessary to take care of people in the organisation. If someone is continuously using violence (in the broadest sense - not just physical) against others and they are not willing to learn about the harm they are causing people and change - we probably wouldn't want to keep working with them.
Exclusion is something we do all the time - who do/don’t we invite to lunch, who do/don’t we work on a project with, who we chat with on Slack. In making a choice there is also usually some exclusion taking place - and that’s okay! I suggest we need to get better at being aware when we are making that choice so we can own the reasons why (and hopefully unlearn some prejudice) and lessen unconscious exclusion.
Psychological safety is often described as something that leaders are meant to provide for the rest of the organisation. Whilst leaders do wield power (such as reputation, decision-making authority, and often from privileged identities) we must not forget that we each have power and responsibility which can make a difference. This can be an empowering and motivating realisation.
Being a human is unsafe - so is learning
There is also an assumption that safety means people are then comfortable enough to learn. Now, of course, there are different degrees of this. If the environment at work is so toxic you are constantly fearing for your reputation or job, then of course that will limit how you work together and the possibilities for reflection and learning.
However, it is also when we feel uncomfortable, challenged and in unfamiliar situations that juicy learning takes place. This is often inherently uncomfortable as learning challenges our assumptions about the way the world is and how we relate to each other, which can really rock us. This is not easy!
I am afraid I can’t neatly summarise this with what you should do instead. We need to be able to think about these concepts in a nuanced way, even in the face of them becoming dominant ideas which are hard to challenge.
Finding time for this kind of reflection can also be difficult in the midst of uncertainty, existential threat and myriad distractions. This is why we have started the series of conversations which anyone is free to join; an opportunity to connect with other humans as well as take some space to reflect on your own experiences, particularly in relation to work. Click here to find out more and sign up.
Other interesting reads…
- In thinking about psychological safety, I have found this blog very useful, especially in challenging the idea we have a true, authentic self which we need to be revealing at work. I think we are always performing, one way or another.
- My understanding of needs has been influenced by Nonviolent Communication, from Marshall Rosenberg. You can find out more here.
If you’d like to have a chat with me about any of this, send me an email here.
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