“Every time I speak up, my boss tries to undermine me.”

Claire Vane
July 11, 2023

In coaching, we often hear from individuals who say they do not feel safe enough in an organisation to speak up with impunity. We are not talking here about whistleblowing re inappropriate activities, but a lack of safety in the environment. Being forced to work remotely has had a profound effect on individuals’ confidence and therefore the issue of psychological safety as described by Dr Timothy Clark, relating to someone’s ‘ability to ask questions, speak up, take risks and brainstorm ideas’.

Sometimes in appraisals, and even anonymous 360-degree reviews, the issue of allowing people to make a mistake with impunity is not considered. We learn by our mistakes and yet we make it impossible for people to make them. In his theory on ‘The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety’, Dr Clark describes this as “A condition in which one feels included, safe to learn, safe to contribute and safe to challenge the status quo - all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised or punished”. He goes on to explain that this relates to being able to ask questions, speak up, take risks and brainstorm ideas.

What are the consequences of not improving psychological safety in the workplace?

The consequences are dire: ideas get lost, intellectual property never comes to light and teams don’t operate collaboratively.

What can we do about it?

The solutions are manifold. Train leaders in good communications, develop assertiveness skills, introduce the concept of Non-Violent Communication, improve the chairmanship and management of meetings and use psychometric profiling to clarify strengths.

Why does this matter?

If organisations hire staff to solve problems and deliver projects, and they are too fearful to speak up, we are wasting much of the talent we are hiring.

In every single exit interview, irrespective of the organisation, one hears that communications are not up to standard and that individuals don’t feel valued. Understanding individuals’ specific values and what makes them tick is extremely important and, it is the difference between people, that fosters creativity and therefore we need to be open to taking risks by bringing our own skills to the table.

Ultimately, those who feel frightened to speak up tend to leave an organisation and add to the staff turnover. A Catalyst survey recently showed that 50% of female business leaders struggle to speak up in virtual meetings. Psychological safety has been reduced by our need to work remotely. Instead of looking at improving psychological safety, we are inadvertently reducing it.

How psychologically safe is your organisation? Do you know the answer to the question? Is it defined at recruitment stage and brought into the open as an important trait of your organisation? Is there enough assessment and intervention of psychometric profiling to ensure that we understand what causes one individual to feel psychologically safe? Is vulnerability permitted? Can creativity flourish? Does the organisational culture seek someone to blame? There are many answers to these questions, but training leaders and making them accountable for psychological safety is critical. Using 360-degree feedback tools to highlight blind spots can lead to a constructive discussion on what skills need to be developed.

If we don’t have clear goals, which include fostering psychological safety, then we are never going to put in place the mechanisms to get there. Running meetings to embrace contributions from everyone is a skill we could all usefully learn, while understanding team and individual preferences for communication can only help to increase individual value and psychological safety, not to mention save time in the long run.

If you would like to discuss training and coaching related to these issues, please do get in touch.

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