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Culture Leadership Mental health Psychological Safety

Why Psychological Safety Matters

Are you willing to invest time in making people feel safe, or do you believe that investing time in psychological safety is a waste of time?

Do people feel safe with you?

I’m privileged to spend time with leaders and groups frequently. While the topics, discussions, and ambitions often change, if I had to recap the issues most teams deal with, it always boils down to the same two foundational elements:

  1. How do we build and grow trust between us?
  2. How do we align ourselves and our teams with our ambitions?
When trust and alignment are absent, you will witness the following atmosphere within the organization:
  • A lack of clarity regarding ambition, direction, and goals.
  • A lack of collaboration within teams and cross-collaboration between teams. Often also paraphrased as silo thinking.
  • A lack of collective thinking, robust conversation, feedback, creative and inspiring debates, and positive tension.
  • A lack of time to communicate direction, decisions, stories, results, failures, and expectations to the broader organization.
  • A lack of energy, enjoyment, engagement, and connection.
  • A lack of ownership, commitment, accountability, and attention to results.

Clarity, Collaboration, Collective Thinking, Conversation, Creativity, Communication, and Commitment. Or lack thereof.

When working with leaders and teams and discussing the topics above in-depth with them, almost everybody recognizes these challenges and understands they need constant attention. Nearly everybody also acknowledges that they don’t have much time to invest in these topics. They silently accept that trust and alignment levels are not where they should be. Thus, they take the consequence that engagement levels are lower than desired, and therefore, NPS scores are lower than desired.

Remember:

Customers will not love your company when your employees don’t love your company first

Simon Sinek

When working with these leaders, I ask many questions to provoke the conversation.

One question always creates silence and a moment of reflection. Many of the questions I usually ask are recognized and have been discussed and reflected on before. With different results. But this question has either not been discussed, or the answer has not been addressed:

Do your people feel safe with you?

Very, very few leaders can answer this question with confidence. Usually, I get replies like: “I don’t know,” “I think so,” and “Why would they not.”

Then I suggest asking, and we discuss why it matters to ask. Somebody always openly shares that they believe there should be some fear inside the organization. “It makes people work harder and feel accountable.” When a leader makes this comment, I sit down and wait because somebody will always challenge this thinking and state that fear should not be part of the company. It results in a good debate.

Few people know the answer to the safety question with certainty:
  • Is it a wholehearted, authentic, and sincere YES?
  • Is it a political, what you want to hear, I won’t tell you the truth, yes?
  • Or is it an honest NO?

Have you ever asked your people this direct question? Do it. Next time your team meets, ask them whether they feel safe with you. Please write a reminder down and ask your people.

If you’re hesitating to do it, find the reason for your hesitation. Are you not sure? Are you concerned about the answer? Or do you know for sure they do feel safe? If the last one is you, then do it anyway. 

Perhaps you’re right. But you may be wrong. 

Are you willing to be wrong? There’s a huge upside if you find out you were wrong. The upside is that you will learn to become a better leader, and your people will learn to perform better. Because contrary to popular belief, people who are afraid do not perform better. 

They conform better.

Perhaps you yourself fear your boss. If that’s the case, your behavior will also influence how your people look at you. When your people see you paying lip service, it will affect how they interact and look at you. They will sooner conform. Simply because they know you won’t rock the boat with your boss.

Conformity is the enemy of Creativity

Erikjan Lantink

This is an important lesson I had to learn in life. I’m creative, often thinking out of the box, and believe in courage, experimentation, and failure simply because it will create lessons that help a better product, service, behavior, or mindset. 

I’ve been in situations and teams where great ideas were shared, but they often fell flat on their faces with our supervisors. Simply because our supervisors did not want to “rock the boat,” even if it was a little toy boat instead of a container tanker, nothing was discussed, and nothing happened.

When you or your people feel handcuffed in their thinking and doing, they will not give you their best thinking, being, doing, and performance.

Here’s the confronting truth:

When you’re a senior leader inside an organization and realize there’s fear within your culture, you can be sure you are not designed for success.

Over the past weeks, I have discussed the qualities of leaders that drive organizations to success and the importance of understanding human needs.

In this last chapter, within the section about leaders who excel, I’m writing about mindset and growth. This is the final leadership chapter before I switch to developing trusting, aligned, energized, and high-performing teams.

The first premise is that your people need to feel safe being themselves, giving their best, collaborating as expected, and delivering the expected performance.

It’s your choice. 

Are you willing to invest time in making people feel safe, or do you believe that investing time in psychological safety is a waste of time?

In fact, every decision you make, no matter how small, increases or decreases psychological safety in your team. You decrease psychological safety when you choose not to listen to your people, interrupt them, push your ideas, and check in with them.

Here’s how the downward spiral works:

When psychological safety goes down, engagement goes down.

When engagement goes down, customer satisfaction goes down.

When customer satisfaction goes down, loyalty goes down.

When loyalty goes down, results get under pressure.

When results get under pressure, company leaders get nervous.

When company leaders get nervous, psychological safety goes down.

It’s your choice.

Your turn: Do your people feel safe with you?

Schedule a free growth conversation here if you need support on your journey.

Erikjan

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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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