Developing Personal Psychological Safety

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— By Beth E. Lee

COVID has impacted everyone’s life and is now impacting our return to work. Psychological Safety is a relatively new concept coming to life after years of research and gaining popularity. This article will go through the concept of psychological safety and give some tips on how to develop your own personal psychological safety.

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What IS Psychological Safety?

At its core, having psychological safety is when you feel safe to take interpersonal risks without the fear of negative consequences. What we’re talking about is a personal psychological state that involves the environment, situations, and others.

Ideally, Psychological Safety should be sought at three levels, starting with the individual, applied to a team, and then promoted and nurtured by the organisation.

When individuals come together, they interact as a team, which requires different psychological safety methods. Looking at what makes up a team, it’s important to realise that individuals in a team are interdependent. They rely on each other for sharing information, resources, knowledge, and skills to work together to achieve a goal.

Dr Amy Edmonson, the foremost expert on this topic, defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” (1)

When teams come together, they form an organisation where the psychological safety concept is more in line with nurturing activities and focused on culture.

Dr Tim Clark defines Psychological Safety as a “social condition in which you [the individual] feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo — all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”(2)

Dr Clark explains that organisations need to nurture psychological safety by “aligning organisational practices, systems and techniques to support [an individual disposition] while keeping in line with the organisations’ culture and goals”. This is not an easy task, but it’s important to distinguish between these three levels to understand how they’re all interconnected.

Let’s look at some individual tips to foster personal psychological safety, which will impact team dynamics and overall organisational culture.

Tackling Blame

No one likes to be BLAMED for anything. Blaming is when we attack someone with our moral judgements. Believe it or not, our brains are wired to blame responding to what’s called the “self-serving bias”. When things go good in our world, we take the credit but apply blame to circumstances, people,
and situations when things go bad. The thing with blame is that it’s easy. It lifts the accountability and responsibility from the outcomes, so many people blame others as the easy way out. Blame also fuels your control (you have control of the story, whether it’s true or not), it protects your ego, and most importantly, it means you don’t have to be vulnerable.

Tip 1: Take Accountability and Responsibility

When we become accountable and responsible for our thoughts and actions, we can accept our mistakes and move on to do something about them. This requires us to be vulnerable and to trust ourselves, which requires practice. Role-playing is one way to practice taking accountability and responsibility, asking yourself, “what other perspectives may be present?” This allows us not to blame others or ourselves but instead use our curiosity to foster empathy and understanding to develop open space.

Facing Fear

Psychological Safety is all about showing and employing “oneself without fear” of the negative consequences. Some examples may be the outcomes of speaking up in an important meeting, voicing a unique idea or an idea that goes against popular belief. It’s the fear of what COULD happen that stifles us.
So what would happen if we got rid of the fear? Understanding your fears can be very beneficial in building up your personal psychological resources. So, where does your fear come from? Think of a couple of examples when you were fearful of being blamed, judged, embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way for sharing your self-image, your abilities, or your ideas. Most likely, the fear is embedded around PREDICTION and EXPECTATIONS.

Many times in teams and organisations, expectations aren’t outlined at the onset. This is a crucial first step to instilling psychological safety. But if you are on your own, you have to stop for a moment and set your own expectations for how you think. How do we do that? We start with our strengths and values.

Tip 2: Focus on your strengths and values

If you don’t know your strengths, hop over to the Values in Action Character Strength Survey (http:// themindinstitute.pro.viasurvey.org). Take the 10-minute survey and find out. Character strengths are robustly evidenced and support the five foundations of positive psychology: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments (PERMA). When you use character strengths, you are building a positive foundation within yourself and in interactions with others.

If you don’t know what your strengths are, then let your values lead the way. Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) help individuals develop Psychological Flexibility, which is “the ability to stay in contact with the present moment regardless of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, while choosing one’s behaviours based on the situation and personal values.” (3) There are several exercises, such as pausing in the moment to reflect on your values to choose how to respond, that can help you overcome fear. By focusing on your strengths and knowing what’s important, can help you move forward through fear.

Building Trust and Self Confidence

Trust is an important concept in psychological safety. On an individual level, building trust in yourself comes in the way of self-confidence.

Tip 3: Question your own biases to build self-confidence.

We rely on our biases to provide us with the information to make sense of the world around us and keep us safe. There are over 180 defined biases. These biases are not always right and may push forward a prediction or expectation that is flat out wrong. You have to have a psychological skill to combat that — it’s called questioning.


As you prepare to employ and show yourself, question your thinking and your biases. Try out different scenarios and options. Ask yourself, “Is this true to who I am?” “How can I express this so X will understand?” or “When was the last time I did…”. Asking yourself the right questions can get you closer to your values and make you aware of your biases, so you can become more confident to express and employ yourself.

You Can Do It!

Developing personal psychological safety takes practice. Practice being vulnerable to be accountable and responsible for yourself and your choices. Practice facing your fears by focusing not on the negative consequences but on your strengths and values to promote psychological flexibility. And the practice of questioning your biases to build your self-confidence and trust in yourself. You can do it… go get ‘em!

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Author: Beth E. Lee

Psychological Coach & Trainer, The Mind Institute Beth@TheMindInstitute.ie

Please feel free to contact me if you’d like any help with working with your strengths, developing your values, instilling psychological flexibility, learning more about biases or if you’d like to discuss additional tools and techniques to promote psychological safety.

References:

(1) Edmondson, A., 1999. Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), p.350.
(2) Dr. Timothy R. Clark’s book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, published by Berrett Koehler, March 2020.
(3) Frank W. Bond, Steven C. Hayes & Dermot Barnes-Holmes (2006) Psychological Flexibility, ACT, and Organizational Behavior, Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 26:1-2, 25-54, DOI: 10.1300/J075v26n01_02

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