Psychological Safety is Crucial to Human-Centred Leadership (Part 1)
In an April 2020 essay for The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters criticized the use of “how are you” as a conversation-starter in times of pandemic: “To ask “How are you?” is either to make the conversation very gloomy, very fast or to force someone to lie straight to your face and say they’re fine.”
A few weeks later, the Mental Health Coalition launched the #howareyoureallychallenge campaign, creating a safe space online for people to share their common struggles with isolation and working from home.
The common message here is about encouraging the public to move away from pretending that everything is fine, and destigmatising conversations about mental health. Which is well and good, because nowadays when people ask me “how are you, really?”, my true answer is “I feel unsafe.”
Honestly, I remember wanting 2020 to be an adventurous year, but not like this. For the last 6 months, I have been worried for my survival (and my loved ones) in ways that I never thought I had to do.
It eats away my attention span and energy, and the primal need to survive has obliterated my ability to create plans. Moreover, having sustained these stressors for so long have resulted in what is commonly referred to as pandemic fatigue. It stems from the exhaustion from constant worry about this public health crisis, and has been known to lead to emotional numbness and withdrawn behaviour.
Your entire team, and yourself, are likely going through something similar. What’s more, we have been conditioned to hide the emotional – some might say human – parts of our lives from work. But now that everyone is working from home, that boundary between personal and work lives have disappeared. As leaders, how can we help people thrive physically, mentally and emotionally, while facing uncertainty and isolation?
In this article series, we revisit the idea of Human-Centred Leadership, framed around the ongoing extraordinary situation that we live in.
There has never been a more important time for leaders to truly focus on what keeps the organisation alive: the people.
In the next few articles, we will look at the four core skills of Human-Centred Leadership:
1. Ability to build trust and create a psychologically safe workspace
2. Ability to recognise and align meaning and purpose between people and organisation
3. Ability to grow and develop people – coaching and mentoring
4. Ability to empathise and take action accordingly
These are skills that any individual leader can develop, but they also serve as identifying elements of a human-centred organisation. Today, we will look at the ability to build trust and create a psychologically safe workspace.
A Safe Space
We begin by looking into the space in which teams operate. As organisations begin to re-design workspaces, employees’ health and safety is now the main priority. Everything must be rebuilt, from sitting layouts, surface materials, to reducing high-touch interfaces like elevator buttons or light switches. But we also know there is more to wellbeing than mere physical safety. Employees must also feel psychologically safe to work, whether they are working from home or in the office.
This is the core of being a human-centred leader: recognising the human elements of what appears to be business challenges.
The issue of emotional safety has gained attention well before the pandemic. In its famous study on team performance, Google defined a psychologically safe teamwork as one where people believe they won’t be punished for making mistakes. The silver lining to this pandemic is that in order to survive, companies now have true urgency to prioritise people over process. Gallup reported that in this global crisis of engagement, only 15% of employees are engaged (12% in Southeast Asia). They also reported that managers and leaders account for 70% of employee engagement. If these managers and leaders improve their relationships with their people, it has the potential to make a huge impact on their ecosystem (subordinates, peers, organisation, customers and stakeholders).
Contrary to what some may believe, this psychologically safe space does not serve as a comfort zone. Instead, it is challenging as well. This is why we propose a slightly different term: “holding environment”, first coined by Winnicott (1965) and popularised by Ronald Heifetz in his Adaptive Leadership work. Heifetz described it as “the cohesive properties of a relationship or social system that serve to keep people engaged with one another, in spite of the divisive forces generated by adaptive work”*. What’s fascinating is that Heifetz closely links holding environment to the idea of pressure cookers (“a holding environment strong enough to contain the disequilibrium of adaptive processes”) and resilience (“The capacity of individuals and the holding environment to contain disequilibrium over time”).
In short, a place where people feel simultaneously protected and challenged.
Creating Holding Environments for Pandemic Times
So how can leaders create holding environments for their team? Like the “how are you, really?” example, the key to creating this space is to shift the communication goals from being “nice” to being authentic and sincere. There are three steps to consider:
Change the conversation. In theories about compassion, the first step is usually defined as “notice the suffering.” Acknowledge struggles and give it space to exist. Fetters recommended “How’s your day/morning been so far?” as a conversation starter. One leader we know has a 3-question rule of thumb: after every “how are you?” they will ask two more follow-up questions, before moving on. If this feels too forced, start by sharing Fetters’ article around, and brainstorm your own inquiries. Habitat is formed by habits.
Re-introduce healthy conflict. The very real damage of “Zoom fatigue” is that people try to end meetings as soon as possible, which means less opportunity for pursuing different insights or new ideas. We think we are doing each other a favour by agreeing to everything, but in the long term, the team loses the ability to learn. The term “psychological safety” was popularised by Amy Edmondson, and she encouraged leaders to proactively invite input, with something like “What do you see in this situation? What are we missing?”. It’s also important for managers to express appreciation to anyone who raises questions, say for example, about unrealistic timelines. Thank them for voicing their concern.
Even though it's not fine, make it fun! Even when teams are reduced to flat square images on a screen, there are ways to bring out their three-dimensional personalities. This website gives great ideas of Zoom group games. Some offices conduct meeting icebreakers by introducing furry friends at home (or scaly – someone owns a snake?). Set casual Fridays where everyone wears funny hats. Play a lockdown bingo game with all the strange lockdown activities (“washed hands 5x today”, “logged into a meeting a day before schedule”). Take it a step further and block out the last half hour of the day to talk about anything work- or life-related.
By re-introducing sincerity, criticality and fun, you are co-creating a workspace that actively copes with current stressors, which improves team resilience. In the second part of this series, we will begin a more purposeful step to strengthen that resilience: by tapping into each other’s purpose and core values.