July 9, 2021 Alex Lang

Psychological Safety: What it is not

“According to a 2017 Gallup Survey, 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count at work.”

I recently sat in on a webinar/discussion section regarding “what psychological safety is not.” Before discussing what I learned during the session, let’s cover what psychological safety is.

From what I understand, psychological safety is a belief that all questions, suggestions, and opinions are viewed and supported as valid within the workplace. To put it simply, a psychologically safe work environment supports ideas that come from all employees, regardless of their status within the organizational hierarchy. This kind of environment rewards vulnerability through inclusion, which opens the door for more innovation. The more diverse thoughts a company has, the better chance they have to foster creativity and explore different avenues to improve their product or service.

That being said, according to the session I attended, there are seven common ways that a company might think they are fostering psychological safety when in reality they are creating a problematic work environment one way or another. Psychological safety is not:

  1. A shield from accountability -the organizational hierarchy is still intact, and any mistakes that are made still need to be resolved and responded to appropriately. A perfect example of a recent accountability situation is the HBO Max Test Email.
    • An integration test email was sent out to HBO’s subscribers, and naturally, people turned to the internet. @HBOMaxHelp ended up Tweeting a response saying “… We apologize for the inconvenience, and as the jokes pile in, yes, it was the intern. No, really. And we’re helping them through it.❤️”  
    • Now, it’s good that HBO is holding the intern accountable here. They could have just apologized and consequently taken the “blame,” but by holding the intern accountable, they are able to help the intern learn from the mistake and grow from it. My only quip is the way that HBO handled announcing that it was the intern. Yes, there is accountability, but Twitter seems like a public way to enforce that accountability. I’m going to assume the best of intentions and say that they are in fact helping the intern learn from the mistake, and grow past it.
  1. Extreme niceness -far too often, people take psychological safety to be a demand that everything is sunshine and rainbows, when in reality, it is a guarantee of respect to all, regardless of their status, within an organization. If a new hire comes in with a question, suggestion, or idea, everyone should be respectful as if it were the CEO. NOW. That does NOT mean that they have to take the suggestion and run with it, but it does mean that all voices should be heard. Artificial niceness gets in the way of progress and creates a false harmony within the organization, which ends up blurring the lines of reality.
  1. Coddling -tying in with the niceness above, a psychologically safe environment is not one that coddles people. If you roll your employees in bubble wrap, you are just adding to their fragility instead of their resilience. A psychologically safe environment is one that encourages vulnerability but maintains accountability, as mentioned above.
  1. Consensus decision making -just because you are opening the space up to hear everyone’s thoughts, ideas, suggestions, and opinions, does not mean you are implementing them in your business’s practice. The organizational hierarchy is meant to remain intact, otherwise everyone will become invested in veto power and all productivity will shut down. In a way, psychological safety encourages a consultative role without authority.
  1. Unearned authority – going along what I just mentioned, psychological safety does not mean that you, as a direct report, can start calling the shots. The higher-ups are expected to hear you and to listen to you, but remember that autonomy is earned by virtue of competence and qualifications, not by simply speaking up.
  1. Political correctness – psychological safety does not subscribe to any political agendas. It’s as simple as that.
  1.  Rhetorical reassurance -like Michael Scott cannot declare bankruptcy by yelling it into the office, you cannot declare psychological safety into existence. By standing up and saying “This is a safe environment where all opinions are heard,” you accomplish nothing below the surface. Psychological safety happens through actions and repetition, it’s a “show me, don’t tell me” kind of practice.