Season 1, Episode 9

Signs you need to improve psychological safety in your workplace.

Marie [00:00:00] If you want psychological safety at work, then you need EI. In the face of continuing change, Covid disruption stress and high levels of burnout, people are in desperate need of psychological safety and they’re ready and willing to change jobs to find it. In this episode, Dr. Ben Palmer and I discuss emotionally intelligent ways of working to create and support psychological safety in the workplace. He says that when employees and leaders are more self-other aware, express how they feel effectively and better manage emotions then psychological safety and well-being flourishes. But how can you tell if your workplace needs to work on this area? Let’s find out. Welcome to Emotional Intelligence at Work brought to you by Genos International. All right, so we’re here to talk about psychological safety and at its best, innovation powerhouses like Google have found it to be the number one predictor of their best teams. At its worst, it can cause significant psychological injury to the employee and have huge cost to the business, be that in expensive compensation claims or high staff turnover. So what exactly is psychological safety in the workplace and how can you tell if your organisation is psychologically safe?

Ben [00:01:27] It’s a really great question. There are a number of different sort of very academic definitions of psychological safety. What I’d like to share is what I think is a much more practical and easily comprehended definition of psychological safety. Really at its heart, psychological safety describes an inclusive work environment where people, no matter what their ethnicity, their gender identification, their sexual preferences or their religious preferences, feel comfortable speaking up with their ideas. Ask questions and question the way things are done. Call out others’ inappropriate behaviour, when necessary, feel cared for, valued and respected. Feel comfortable discussing issues such as their mental health that might be affecting their work. Feel comfortable sharing mistakes and highlighting errors. And finally, feel comfortable reporting on ethical conduct that, to me, is the real definition of psychological safety at work. What psychological safety is not, it’s not about everyone being “nice to each other”. It’s not about sacrificing standards for comfort and peace. It’s not about accepting all ideas as equally valuable for the sake of team harmony. It’s not about eliminating all conflict. In fact, in a psychologically safe work environment, productive conflict is encouraged. It’s not just another word for trust. And finally, it’s certainly not just about letting everyone be their authentic self. Unfortunately, some peoples authentic self; it’s racist, homophobic and so on. And that’s where respect for others comes in so that is psychological safety, in a nutshell.

Marie [00:03:19] How can you tell whether your company is psychologically safe or not?

Ben [00:03:24] I think most people know when their workplace is psychologically safe because you have those high levels of respect. You have productive conflict. You have people feeling comfortable to speak up and so on. How do you know if your workplace is not psychologically safe that’s a really interesting one. Most people know when their workplace is demonstrably not psychologically safe. There’s gaslighting by colleagues or managers that being the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying the facts or the environment around them or their feelings. There’s the notion that speaking up can be a career-limiting move. There’s the checking in with how certain people’s mood and behaviour might be like in the morning. They might be very siloed or sniping of others. What people don’t always realise is that there are more subtle forms of equally damaging, psychologically unsafe workplaces, and they kind of look a little bit like this. You might be working in a psychologically unsafe team if you find that everyone’s very polite to each other, but there are indirect conversations happening, where you feel concerned about making mistakes, where you might feel uncomfortable, challenging the way things are done. And so you do so very cautiously. You put a lot of time and planning and thought into it. You might find certain people are stereotyped and there are light or heavy jokes made about yourself or others. You might find certain ideas or skills are dismissed, even when they are valuable to use them that’s the more subtle, but as I’m saying, equally damaging, psychologically unsafe workplace.

Marie [00:05:09] But how do I as somebody in HR or training and development, right, how do I recognise that this is so bad that I have to do something about it? So from what I understood, psychological injuries caused when you are exposed to the levels of stress that come from an unsafe workplace for a prolonged period of time but how do I, as somebody who needs to make a serious decision or intervene, how do I know it’s time? Is there, you know, I may be disconnected from what’s happening in all these little groups or in certain teams, is there a measure or some kind of assessment that I could or should be running to pick up on this?

Ben [00:05:52] Yes, absolutely, there are good assessments of psychological safety and there are indirect assessments of psychological safety that point to a psychologically unsafe workplace environment. Many organisations use employee engagement or employee-type surveys and often those surveys pick up on things like, you know, I feel people are mistreated. I don’t feel comfortable expressing my ideas and so on. So there are great assessments and assessments are very, very important. I think all organisations, big and small should look to assess the level of psychological safety that exists for people in their workplaces formally every year. And I say that because I think not a lot of people, not a lot of CEOs, not a lot of HR directors like to think of their workplace as not psychologically safe. And so they walk around with what I call confirmation bias on, only seeing the good things that are happening in their organisations because they don’t want to believe that there might be psychological safety problems. So assessing psychological safety is very, very important. The other thing we know about having assess psychological safety for organisations and for teams is that any group of, say, 10 or more people there will be quite a range of views on how psychologically safe the workplace actually is. Some people feel like it’s great. There are no problems. Some people will feel like I’m really not feeling very comfortable to speak up or to call out mistakes and so on. And so it’s both a collective and individual thing, and it’s really important not only to know sort of the average score if you like on an assessment, but to also know the standard deviation. And what I mean by that is the range of scores, if you like around the average, the minimums and the maximums too that really give you a feel for whether there might be pockets of individuals or pockets within the organisation where it’s really going quite well and where it’s not going so well, does it make sense?

Marie [00:07:59] Yes, that does make sense. My question is the benefits of a psychologically safe environment, right, are innovation, a great strong, high performing culture, so as an organisation, I would want to encourage psychological safety in my organisation, however, where the impact is negative. What is it that you have to do, be it through legal obligation or the like? What is the minimum that an organisation has to do to provide a psychologically safe workplace?

Ben [00:08:34] That’s a great question and I don’t think we have good definitive answers to that question here in Australia from a legal perspective, from a compliance perspective. I think more work needs to be done in that area. But I think the minimum that organisations should do is, number one, always assess the psychological safety, like I was saying, formally, once a year more often, if needed. I think you’ve got to watch your key metrics around things like employee engagement, employee turnover. You’ve got to be doing your exit interviews for people who leave the organisation and really find out what were some of the causes of involuntary turnover? Was it just that they were offered more money or a more interesting job? Or were there, you know, troubles within the team? For example, you’ve got to look at stress-related leave claims, absenteeism or there are many different metrics that kind of fall in and suggest, if you like that psychological safety needs to be improved. Does that make sense?

Marie [00:09:35] It does. So what, then, is the link between emotional intelligence and psychological safety?

Ben [00:09:41] The link is very, very strong. As Timothy Clarke, the author of the book The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, says psychological safety is impossible without emotional intelligence. And that’s really because psychological safety at the end of the day, in part, is a feeling of comfort and confidence. It’s really also a set of behaviours that relate to the skills of emotional intelligence. The behaviours of emotional intelligence really actually are at the heart of it. And it’s turning up and demonstrating those behaviours better and more frequently that actually creates a psychologically safe workplace. So if we go through the competencies and some of the skills of emotional intelligence, you’ll really see the links. So, you know, at the heart of unpsychologically safe workplaces often are people who lack self-other awareness. They don’t realise that they’re gaslighting people or they don’t have the self-awareness that their behaviour negatively impacts on others. They’re not picking up on the way others feel. And that’s what those two first competencies of emotional intelligence are really about being aware of yourself the way your own emotions drive your decisions and your behaviour, and therefore how you connect, communicate, collaborate with others and awareness of others, which is at the essence really of empathy, the capacity to perceive and understand the way others feel. Now, if you’re not high in empathy, if you’re not high in picking up on the way others feel, then you’re very likely to miss the signs that people don’t feel psychologically safe in your midst or in your work team or in your work environment. So those two skills, self-awareness and awareness of others are really at the heart of individually picking up on an understanding whether the workplace is psychologically safe or not, whether people feel comfortable and confident speaking up, being themselves, questioning the way things are being done and so on. So those two skills are critical.

Marie [00:11:54] Is there a level of maybe feeling extra psychologically safe when you work from home? I mean, what’s the impact of working from home and Covid been on psychological safety in general?

Ben [00:12:06] Very mixed, I think some people feel very safe working from home and indeed have benefit from that and the flexibility that’s come with it. And some people are working at home in environments that are very stressful. They might have a family member; it might even be a partner, who doesn’t make them feel psychologically safe at home. And so it’s probably on the smaller end, if you like, not as frequent as the other one. And I think generally working from home has promoted psychological safety for a lot of people, but for others it hasn’t. And just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean that you feel all those sort of things that define psychological safety. It doesn’t mean you feel comfortable speaking up with your ideas. It doesn’t mean you feel comfortable questioning the way things are done. It might make a little bit more comfort in that you’re not physically around people, who might be a little slightly racist or talk over the top of you in meetings that make you feel uncomfortable. I think that’s the bit that has virtues for everyone. But working from home doesn’t necessarily make you feel comfortable sharing the stakes or highlighting areas. So there’s still this big cultural element to psychological safety as caring for people, whether they’re working in an office or working from home.

Marie [00:13:33] And I wonder whether with, you know, the return to the office looming, I wonder whether that is making people feel uncomfortable or stressed in terms of raising that perhaps they don’t want to go back?

Ben [00:13:46] Yes, absolutely, I think a lot of people are going through that, a lot of people are very keen to get back for the engagement with others. And that again comes to psychological safety. If you work with a great organisation where you feel cared for and respected, where you feel comfortable discussing issues and connecting with people, you’re looking forward to getting back to work, probably, on the most part. If, on the other hand, you’re not comfortable speaking up about your ideas or you’re really not looking forward going into the office where you know, Person X is going to be around, who does the gaslighting or the slightly homophobic jokes or so on, then you’re probably not looking forward to going back to work. In fact, I would say that I think levels of psychological safety in organisations at the moment are one of the big primary drivers of the great contemplation, the great searching for whether there might be better occupations, better workplaces that are more psychologically safe. I mean, wellbeing, empathy, these are the big hot drivers of success in this tight labour market that we’re in at the moment here.

Marie [00:14:59] So why is it that psychological safety is so important, more so now than ever before? Is it because people are contemplating whether to return to work or not? What is it that’s driving its priority for the employee?

Ben [00:15:13] Look, I think it’s always been a very important thing, but our levels of consciousness around it as a nation, I think, have been risen a lot. Whether it’s because of Grace Thames or Brittany Higgins, whether it’s been because of our Banking Royal Commission, I mean, let me come back to my definition of psychological safety. You feel safe reporting on ethical conduct whether it’s our Aged Care Royal Commission, I mean, anyone who’s interested in this, I think you should jump on to Indeed or jump in to Seek and look at the reviews previous employees in the aged care industry, giving aged care providers at the moment. They are horrifying. They speak to incredibly poor levels of psychological safety in the workplace. So sorry, Marie, that’s a very long-winded way, as I think Covid raised our consciousness of well-being and its importance. And I think when we mix that in with some of the very unethical big news item conduct of organisations, particularly here in Australia of late but that’s happening all around the world in various forms as well. You have a workforce that is much more tuned in to whether this is a nice place to work out or not.

Marie [00:16:37] And you know what’s interesting, you mentioned the reviews that employees have been leaving on companies on Indeed or Seek. I mean, they’d have to be pretty pissed off, angry, unsafe to have to go to the lengths to leave a review like that. Most people are unhappy and silent.

Ben [00:16:54] That’s right and what I want to make is a point on our podcast here is average levels of psychological safety are not okay. Those work environments where people feel a bit cautious about talking up, those work environments that are overly polite, but conversations are happening on the side, those sort of work environments where inappropriate behaviour for managers is kind of accepted and walk past, that’s kind of the average, I would say, in Australian workplaces at the moment. And those kind of workplaces are frankly not okay, psychological safety, in my opinion, needs to be high and very effective in order for the wellbeing of staff, but also so that organisations don’t find themselves front and centre in a Royal Commission or front and centre at the Fair Work Commission, or simply in a position where, you know, levels of turnover and so on frankly, burning big holes in the P&L?

Marie [00:18:06] Absolutely and you know what that’s kind of the avoidance, avoid, you know, focus on psychological safety to avoid those scenarios. But you know what, aim bigger, focus on psychological safety so that you can innovate so that you can do great work and deliver great outcomes for all involved. And so we spoke about, okay, we can identify poor psychological safety through just being in tune and connecting and having the feelers out to see what’s going on in your company. We spoke about the fact that you can and should be assessing psychological safety constantly. We also spoke about emotional intelligence having a direct link to improving psychological safety. So talk to me then about improving, how do you develop emotional intelligence and where do you even start?

Ben [00:18:59] Well, as I said before, those first two skills are very critical, self-awareness and awareness of others, and assessments at an individual level are again very important in the development of those skills because emotional intelligence, as we’ve talked about before on the podcast, suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect. You know, it took a hundred people randomly off the street and ask them, do you think your empathy is okay? Do you think you’re self-aware? Most people will say, yes, I do. I don’t think there are any problems there. And of course, it’s normally distributed in the population. There are those of us who are low, average and high. So assessments are very important to help people really understand the impact they’re having on others. Assessments are really critical to help people understand their level of capacity at picking up and understanding the way others feel and so on. But one of the other competencies that we haven’t talked about yet that forms a very big part of developing a psychologically safe workplace is the emotional intelligence competency of authenticity, which by definition is the skill of expressing how you feel and encouraging that behaviour in others. And so in the work that we’ve been doing around that competency to help lift psychological safety, we make it known that psychological safety in workplaces is not just the organisation’s responsibility, it’s everyone’s responsibility, everybody’s responsibility to develop the confidence and the capability to speak up, to express their views and opinions, to say how they feel in a way that is respectful and inclusive of others. And that’s really what we do in our work around that particular competency. We get people to explore what effective emotional expression looks like and what ineffective emotional expression looks like. We give people scenarios then, and we use a model called CARE. CARE, in fact, was developed by a general practitioner called Meg Price, and it stands for clarity, autonomy, relationships and equity. If you’ve got an issue with someone, make it clear to them, but also get clear on what their point of view is and what’s happening for them. So spending a lot of time really defining what’s going on, why it’s going on, the impact it’s having, what needs to be done, how people should be feeling that’s a big part of the CARE model creating clarity. Autonomy is about allowing both people to own the process to speak and say their truth and to conceptualise things that could be done to improve the situation. R stands for relationships in that CARE model, and that’s just about being respectful in those difficult, authentic conversations. We teach people things like don’t sit opposite each other on a table, sit at 90 degrees, or sit next to each other, do symbolic things that show you’re listening deeply like, you know, using clarifying statements, asking questions when things aren’t clear. So we get people to really think about the fact that you’ve got to bring good relational skills to these conversations. And finally, a sense for equity, which is really about ensuring that, you know what’s possible and what the potential is and the limits that different individuals have and working in a way that takes into account the individual nature and context of the people involved. And that CARE model is a great set of principles for authentic conversations, and when you really enhance people’s confidence and capability to have these kind of conversations to openly and effectively express how they feel, you really start to see improvements in psychological safety.

Marie [00:22:57] So this CARE model you talk about, what programme is that a part of, what Genos programme?

Ben [00:23:03] It’s a part of all our programmes, leading with emotional intelligence, it’s a part of applied emotional intelligence. Those two programmes, one is obviously at the leadership level and Applied EI is for individual contributors, but we recommend organisations that need to lift psychological safety, run those two programmes in cohort so that all employees are learning the language and the skills and capabilities around authenticity by way of example. It’s important for leaders to lead, role model and demonstrate authenticity. But as I said, psychological safety is everyone’s responsibility, and so everybody needs to be able to facilitate an authentic conversation when it’s needed.

Marie [00:23:50] What assessment would you start with?

Ben [00:23:52] We start the authenticity module of our programme with an assessment on psychological safety. We show people what a psychologically safe workplace is and what one isn’t safe looks like, and we simply get people to give it a rating out of 10. And that’s a really great lead in to a lot of informed dialogue of where psychological safety is currently at. We also get people to right where they’d like it to be. And so we get sort of a current state, future state view and lens, if you like, on what needs to happen and to what extent. Of course, prior to this, everybody has usually done their own emotional intelligence 360 or 180 as well, where they’ve got feedback from their colleagues around their self-awareness and their awareness of others, their level of authenticity. So they are also informed about the individual work they need to do in the programme, whether they need to be a coach and mentor of other people, or whether they are indeed needing to work more systematically and fundamentally on their own capabilities in the emotional intelligence than main. And so, yes, there are both individual and collective assessments.

Marie [00:25:06] And that’s all part of the Genos Applied EI programme?

Ben [00:25:10] Yes and it’s also part of the Leading with the EI programme. Leader as coach in the wellbeing programmes are a little bit different in nature, but those two programmes that I’ve just mentioned are foundational to psychological safety and indeed are being brought into organisations and rolled out in organisations to help create psychologically safe workplaces.

Marie [00:25:31] I know you probably won’t be able to tell me the name of any client that you’ve done this for recently, but can you at least give us an example of the results that some large corporates or government organisations have seen once they’ve developed or rolled out the applied EI programme? What was the impact on psychological safety?

Ben [00:25:51] Well, firstly, there’s an impact on general well-being and the way people feel about their organisations. I think, you know, there is at the end of the programme, greater levels of employee engagement and satisfaction. I think more long-term, what we’re seeing is then things like better employee retention and improvements in employment brand. So some of the aged care providers that we’ve been working for, by way of example, are starting to see much better reviews on Indeed and Seek from employees who have worked in their businesses before. But perhaps most importantly, for organisations with that, of course, comes improvements in productivity with that comes improvements in openness to change, with lifts in emotional intelligence and improved psychological safety comes as all the commentators in this space talk about better innovation because people’s ideas are being put forward or being taken into account or being looked at more. So that we’re incorporating everything that gets put forward but you get that culture of speaking out, you get that culture of greater diversity of ideas, and that’s really where innovation in things comes from, I think, too, that businesses, you know, it’s very hard to know, but any business is susceptible to unethical conduct. And I think what a psychologically safe workplace does is it minimises the potential for unethical conduct to occur because people feel comfortable reporting on ethical conduct and highlighting mistakes in those areas.

Marie [00:27:35] Is this something that you’re seeing a lot of interest and demand for at the moment? Is the word psychological safety coming up a lot more now than it ever used to?

Ben [00:27:45] Yes, for all those consciousness reasons that I talked about before, Covid just raised, I think everyone’s kind of level of consciousness around this kind of thing. The other word that gets used a lot is employee experience. So in some ways, these terms are different, but very related to each other. You can think of employee experience, really just what kind of experience am I going to have in the organisation? And a part of that, of course, has to do with these things that we’ve been talking about under the umbrella of psychological safety. So in this environment, tight labour markets, enormous levels of growth starting to occur as we come out of Covid, psychological safety, employee experience, employee engagement, talent, attraction and retention, all these things are coming right back front and centre of executives and executive teams thinking strategies and mindsets right now.

Marie [00:28:53] Awesome, thanks, Ben, is there anything else you’d like to add that I may have missed?

Ben [00:29:00] Well, if anybody out there feels like they might be working in a psychologically unsafe workplace, we’d love to hear from you. Please email and we’ll reach out to you. Likewise, if you’re working in an organisation that is hitting it out of the park, in your opinion from a psychological safety point of view, we’d also love to hear from you. We are constantly looking to write up case studies and highlight organisations that are doing really well in these important ethical areas of workplace life and so please reach out to us and if you’re working in an organisation that’s really exemplar in this space.

Marie [00:29:43] Awesome, thanks so much, Ben that was really interesting, actually, and I feel like when I reflect back on my career, it’s interesting how many environments I was exposed to, be it, I work there or through my clients that were completely unsafe, but it just wasn’t spoken about, 10 years ago, you wouldn’t highlight that it was psychologically unsafe. And I’m so glad that it now has a label. You know what I mean before it was just it’s just toxic or no, you know, or this manager or that manager but I like that it now has a label that is serious.

Ben [00:30:23] Yes, absolutely, it’s as serious as occupational health and safety from a physical point of view, in fact, they’re almost two sides of that coin.

Marie [00:30:34] Yes, well, I did see, I spent a lot of time in preparation for this on WorkSafe Australia and was blown away by, I mean, I don’t know how effective it is because I don’t work in this space, but I was blown away by just how much was covered under the banner of psychological safety and how clear it was to me that this is important you do as an employer or as a person that conducts business, they’ve got a fancy PCBU something, don’t quote me on it, you know that there is a very real responsibility on you as a business leader to ensure that there is a psychologically safe environment in which your people need to work to perform their best.

Ben [00:31:23] Absolutely, in fact, if you are a director of a business, the same levels of accountability and responsibility exist around psychological safety as they do around occupational health and safety. So, you know, what falls now under the definition of workplace safety is both the physical and the mental side of it.

Marie [00:31:44] And you know, the other thing that popped up in my mind as I was reading about it is, I think, we’ve come to put things that happen in the workplace that affect you mentally, we’ve put them kind of in the bucket of harassment. And I felt that the more I read and certainly the more I hear from you is actually they’re so different. It’s not just you don’t have to be harassed to have a psychological injury caused at work.

Ben [00:32:09] No, that’s right, well, that’s the big point I’d like to make that there are levels of psychological safety and unsafety, we’re all probably pretty easy to name and demonstrably observe one that’s not psychologically safe in the sense that you’re talking about. There are injuries and things, but there are much more subtle forms of it that can be equally damaging. And that’s why what I call average psychological safety is just not okay, that psychologically that workplace where everyone’s polite, people are concerned about making mistakes, people feel uncomfortable challenging the way things are done, people might see certain people a little bit stereotyped on a light way and ideas and or skills are a little bit dismissed when it would have been valuable to use them, those kind of workplaces, again, in my opinion, aren’t effective and are going to suffer in this environment where people are much, much more tuned in to their own well-being. The purpose and value of work and the enjoyment that we should get from it and they’re much more tuned in to, in fact, the culture of organisations and what they can be like from jumping on to Indeed, jumping onto Google, jumping onto Seek and looking at the reviews that employees are actually giving these organisations.

Marie [00:33:37] That’s huge, I’m actually going to jump on and have a have a check right after this, thanks so much, Ben, for your time.

Ben [00:33:43] Thank you, Marie and thanks, everyone for listening.

Enquire about Genos certification, assessments or programs now
This is default text for notification bar