Sowing the seeds of safety

Psychological safety is an essential building block of creating change. Only when we feel safe are we open to really transformative challenges, seeking out new experiences, and exploring new possibilities. When we are not psychologically safe, we are on the defensive: it limits our creativity and creates the conditions for narrowed thinking. This is the paradox of psychological safety: the safer we feel, the more open we are to taking risks and pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone.

In a professional environment, it’s especially important to think about how psychological safety is created in times of crisis that may have nothing to do with the work at hand. Simply ignoring crises outside the workplace won’t make them disappear; they’re still part of the lived reality of everyone who works with you. For leadership, this requires a special focus on communication, honesty, and vulnerability. Teams learn from leaders’ behaviour: only by showing that it’s acceptable not to know all the answers and to speak up and ask for help where it’s needed will teams feel empowered to take a realistic look at their challenges and to think creatively about how to solve them.

While leaders bear a special responsibility for facilitating psychological safety, it’s not up to them alone. Trust is a quality that takes time to establish in relationships through repeated demonstration that we are honest, adhere to our promises, recognize our flaws and make amends when things go wrong, and that we are open, supportive, and encouraging to others: that we are on the same team; we’re not in competition but working towards the same goal.

While we can never change the behaviour of others, when we find ourselves in an environment that is not psychologically safe, we can still use our inner resources and resilience to maintain our own best intentions no matter how external forces buffet us. What would need to be different about our environment to make it safer? What is within our own power to change about that? What other environments do we have in our lives that we can draw on for creating an inner well of psychological safety?

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