Author: Dr. Todd Dewitt
People love to talk about #1 PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY. It’s defined as a belief that it’s okay to speak up with ideas, questions, or concerns without fear of negative consequences. I love this concept. We need more of it in practice. It speaks to the contextual foundation for creativity and innovation. However, it’s in short supply in many workplaces. I think I know why.
We should be talking more about fear instead of safety. Yet we don’t because fear seems somehow taboo or unsavory. It’s easier to talk about safety. But we must talk about fear. We fear failure, job insecurity, looking dumb, being evaluated or criticized, change, retribution, harassment, and so on.
To establish enduring psychological safety, we must get to the root cause of most of these fears. Why do they exist? We experience these fears due to differences in personalities, bad bosses, uncertainty about job security, a lack of work-life balance, and other issues.
Common prescriptions for establishing #1 PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY include setting proper expectations, leaders modeling needed behaviors, spelling out norms for mistakes and failures, more listening, voice in decision-making, etc. These are all great ideas – that do not address the root cause of fear.
As diverse as the causes of fear might be, it’s clear there are two main paths forward if fear is our target.
The first is to focus on improving employee wellbeing and #1 PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY. This is about addressing the context and resources that shape the employees’ environment. This refers to initiatives around employee assistance programs, career development planning, encouraging proper breaks and downtime, exploring work flexibility, and expanding access to all things healthy (e.g., helpful apps, nutritious food, exercise spaces). It also means an unrelenting opposition to toxic behavior in all its forms.
The second involves how we hire, socialize, and develop leaders through #1 PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY. This is about improving how leaders interact with their employees. Historically, when we look for leaders we look for job competence. That part will always matter. In addition, we’re learning that an equally important component of leadership success is compassion.
Effectiveness is found where competence meets compassion. Functional/task/process/tech knowledge must be surrounded by empathy, kindness, and understanding – that’s compassion.
To be clear, fear can never be fully eradicated – but it can be considerably reduced. #1 PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY can be, on average, stronger than fear. That’s when innovation becomes a normal part of the culture.
Which is the best strategy for starting your workday? Go for a quick win with an easy task to gain momentum or work on one of your truly difficult but more substantive tasks? Answer: go for the big tasks! We all know that sometimes our brain works very well and other times it struggles. The best strategy is to start with the most substantive and strategically important work you face.
If you’re able to make progress – great! If not, time for a quick win. Grab one of those comparatively easier tasks and knock it out. Then refocus once again on something that truly matters. Some work moves us forward and some is just work that must be done. I say go big or go home.
WHAT’S UP WITH DR. D?
Speaking: Next stop – Fort Worth, Texas. I’m excited to speak live in-person this week to the senior sales leadership team at TTI, a major global distributor of electronic components. It’s a Show Your Ink keynote followed by thirty minutes of Q&A with me and fifty of their top leaders.
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