Fostering Psychological Safety for Successful Transitions

Work safety is not only physical safety

When we think about workplace safety, images of hands-on, physically risky work often come to mind. I often think of manufacturing environments or roles where an individual is putting their own life at risk to achieve an outcome for the greater good (firefighters, police officers, medical staff, etc.). We don’t often think about safety from a corporate perspective. Sitting at a desk and attending meetings doesn’t seem like a particularly threatening environment, but from a psychological perspective, social relationships can be a very real catalyst or threat to one’s success or failure in a particular role. 

What is psychological safety and how is our brain involved?

So what is psychological safety? The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) defines psychological safety as a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up. This means that individuals who experience psychological safety feel they can be their true, authentic selves in the workplace without experiencing repercussions, whether expressing positive or constructive viewpoints. It is a precursor for authenticity. 

If we think about psychological safety from a neuroscience perspective, we are essentially trying to empower individuals to express their authentic opinions while negating threats. Think about a time when you expressed a genuine opinion, an opinion you thought was fairly good and valid, and were met with confrontation, anger, frustration, or fear from your peers and/or leaders. How did you feel? Attacked, embarrassed, ashamed? Being confronted in a negative manner activates our stress response. This is when our brain perceives a threat or potentially threatening circumstance that we are unable to control and when that stress response is activated, physiological responses start occurring (sweaty palms, cortisol rushing through the body, oxygen is directed to your lungs and muscles just in case you need to fight or flee). This is a function of our sympathetic nervous system, which cannot tell the difference between a life and death threat or a social threat. 

Using the logic center of our brain, our pre-frontal cortex, we can tell ourselves that we are not in danger when someone gets upset with us or gives us negative feedback, but, again, our brains cannot tell the difference between true life and death scenarios and other threats. The fight/flight/freeze response is still activated. Why? It all comes back to survival. Our social status and social acceptance are actually beneficial to our survival and health. When an individual experiences loss of control, loss of social standing, or interprets others’ actions as excluding them from a group or that the group is turning against them, this feels like a true threat. Because our brains use past experiences to predict our future safety, an individual who has experienced a psychologically unsafe situation will most likely not speak up again. 

The importance of psychological safety for organizational transitions (digital transformation focus)

Organizations are more often in transition than not in this day and age. When we think about this from the lens of technology implementations, the individuals involved need to feel comfortable offering their authentic opinions to make sure both client and consultant are providing the most authentic and honest information possible. At Zennify, when we work with clients, it is part of our job to make sure they feel comfortable being transparent about:

  • How the technology could benefit them
  • How the technology could hinder them
  • The possibilities of technology
  • Who the technology could impact that may have been missed
  • What internal teams / relationship are like

Psychological safety is a foundational component for innovation, divergent thinking, creativity, and strategic risk-taking (Talent Management, 2020). If that safe environment isn’t fostered or the client isn’t encouraged to ask questions or clarify terminology that is new to them, Zennify misses the mark. We put a lot of time and effort into getting our clients up to speed on the basics and empowering them to speak up. This helps us leverage innovation, divergent thinking, and creativity that makes technology transitions exciting and successful. We are also reducing our client’s stress response and building something crucial for success: Trust. 

How to cultivate psychological safety

While everyone in an organization has the power to foster psychological safety, it can be particularly impactful to have a leader or manager start. Here are three tips below to get you started on your psychological safety journey courtesy of HBR. Remember, it is natural for people to hold back ideas, be reluctant to ask questions, and shy away from disagreeing with their manager. To reverse this takes focus and effort; it’s a process of helping people develop new beliefs and behaviors, and none of it is easy or natural.

  • Shift focus to performance: Instead of branding psychological safety as ‘keeping people safe’ or ‘listening better’, rebrand the initiative by focusing on what most executives and leaders want to hear about: increased performance. A downstream effect of psychological safety is the discovery of the very best ideas and solutions that are generated by groups of individuals who can have productive disagreements in safe environments. Leaders buy into the idea and commitment to psychological safety when it is directly tied to performance outcomes. 
  • Normalize vulnerability related to work: Being vulnerable generates levels of anxiety. It’s important for leaders to practice being vulnerable to expose themselves to this type of anxiety and learn that it does not in fact produce any real threat. Doing this allows leaders to empathize with what they are asking their teams to do and helps them manage their teams through this more effectively. 
  • Prioritize team and individual skill development: Individuals must learn and practice the skills that make psychological safety successful, such as perspective-taking and inquiry, which generate the sharing of ideas and concerns. It’s important to learn the expectations of these skills in an individual setting and practice them in a moderated team environment. It’s the same idea as reading about a concept and actually applying a concept. Those who apply that concept regularly are much more likely to transition that concept into behavior change. 

It is ideal for Zennify to work with clients that prioritize the concept of psychological safety. Do all clients? No, because not every organization is at a point where they can prioritize it. At Zennify, our change management offering and project lifecycle capitalize on the concepts of psychological safety to make Salesforce implementations as successful and enjoyable as possible for clients. If you’re interested in working with us, drop us a line here and we can get you started on the right foot.

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