No matter where you work, you’ll come up against problems. Maybe you make a mistake on a project. Perhaps a coworker is treating you badly. Or it might be that an issue in your personal life means you can’t work in the same way for a while.
Tackling problems like this requires having tough, honest conversations. And this takes a lot of bravery.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that instilling psychological safety in your team or organisation will make these conversations easy. These sorts of topics are always tough to deal with. But what it will do is equip your team members better to deal with them, and give them confidence that their candour will be worthwhile.
So, let’s dig into how psychological safety – which Amy Edmondson defined in The Fearless Organization – enables fearless conversations.
Normalising open discussions
Often, we need to have candid conversations in order to address one specific big issue. But on a day-to-day basis, all kinds of smaller problems come up. These provide great opportunities to develop a team culture of open conversations, one of the key tenets of psychological safety.
Having these regular chats, whether as a team or in smaller groups, exercises the same mental muscles you’ll need for those bigger, scarier conversations. The stakes are lower, but the general shape of the conversation is the same, which prepares both leaders and team members for dealing with tougher problems.
Providing a friendly ear
Often, people are afraid to discuss serious issues with their managers because they worry they won’t understand, or will judge them. Demonstrating active listening on a daily basis is so important in combatting this fear.
In a group discussion, show you’re really paying attention by asking relevant questions, and referring back to things team members have previously said. Show vulnerability, too – if you don’t understand something, ask about it. Being in a leadership role doesn’t mean you’re suddenly omniscient!
Showing you’ll really listen is so important to facilitating candid conversations. Someone coming to you with a problem or personal issue probably doesn’t expect you to be an instant expert on the topic. They just want to know you’ll listen, admit when you need more information, and be as sympathetic as possible.
Allowing multiple modes of communication
Of course, a conversation can look like many things. It might be a one-on-one chat, in person, over the phone or on a video call. It could be a group conversation. Or it might even be an exchange over email, Slack or another text-based service.
It’s important as a leader to enable as many modes of communication as possible. Especially when factoring in neurodiversity, the context and setting of an important conversation can mean the difference between an uncomfortable and unsatisfactory exchange, and a genuinely fearless conversation.
Prioritising wellbeing and long-term productivity
People in psychologically safe teams know that they matter not just as workers, but as people. In fact, they understand that you can’t be the most productive, innovative version of yourself if you feel unable to bring your full self to work. So if something is preventing them from doing that, they’ll know they’ll be supported in talking about it.
For example, a trans person who does not feel that their wellbeing is a priority might fear having a conversation about their gender identity. But it’s vitally important they feel empowered to do so. Misgendering and other trans-exclusionary behaviour can lead to reduced morale and productivity, and ultimately loss of talent. As a Totaljobs survey notes, in 2021 43% of trans employees said they had left a job due to an unwelcoming environment.
Simone Biles gives us an important example of someone in a very high-profile role feeling confident that their wellbeing will be prioritised. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the gymnast pulled out of several events due to suffering from the twisties – a dangerous loss of the sense of space and dimension while in the air.
Biles clearly felt secure in the support of her team, enough to face this difficult conversation. And that may just have made the difference between her suffering a life-altering injury, and being able to come back after a break to add yet another Olympic medal to her collection.