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The rise of Psychological Safety

In this two-part blog, LINDA RAY looks at the rise of psychological safety and the drivers that make it a foundation of workplace wellness for the successful organisations of the future.

Psychological Safety is no ‘fad’

Fads cause excitement. Ideas with real substance cause panic.
Management and leadership fads can come and go quite quickly – a new concept gathers momentum (usually with a catchy name), managers get excited, and they jump on board – only to discover there is no silver bullet. But if the new idea creates panic in the boardroom – it’s probably an idea that’s here to stay with deep and lasting impact.
In decades past, when boardrooms caught a whiff of impending culpability around physical safety, they pushed the panic button. I’m starting to see that same panic mentality now in relation to Psychological Safety and workplace wellbeing and, just as OH&S is still with us today, I expect Psychological Safety will be a foundation of leadership in decades to come. The term is popping up all over the place, even though it is far from being a “catchy” name, and board members are asking the question of their CEOs: “What are we doing about Psychological Safety and what is our wellbeing strategy?”

NOTE: For an understanding of what Psychological Safety is all about, see Linda’s earlier articles on Psychological Safety and her current thinking around extension to Social Safety.

Why the panic?

Board members are, perhaps, more attuned to risk than anyone else in the organisation and it’s the potential for disastrous outcomes that have them hitting the panic button. They have seen the fallout of psychologically unsafe workplaces and they are desperate to avoid the financial and reputational costs associated with major issues. For instance, AMP’s share price slide sparked by the banking royal commission was only compounded by the fallout of sexual harassment claims. A share price that was sitting at $5.50 before the banking royal commission is closer to $1 today. The linkage between Psychological Safety and the sexual harassment claims couldn’t be any clearer. But links between Psychological Safety and the behaviours, including failure to stop behaviours, that led to some Royal Commission revelations and findings are pretty easy to make as well. Any board member who takes their job seriously should be hitting the panic button for the welfare of the employees if not for the welfare of the organisation and their own liability.
But the problem with Psychological Safety, now, is similar to the problem we saw with Physical Safety – a lot of action but not necessarily the right action. Scrambling to put resilience, well-being and mental health first aid training in place for employees is a quick and easy way to be “seen” to be doing something about Psychological Safety. But the truth is that Psychological Safety doesn’t lend itself to quick and easy fixes. Changes are required at a fundamental level. It’s not that the changes are all that hard, but they require a bit of thought. What I am not seeing is the development of a specific strategy to improve psychological safety.
Some managers may be at least partially right in their view that it’s not our job to fix the mental health challenges our employees face. But it is our job to firstly do no harm. We have invested so much in training for technical skills (and we mostly promote employees based on their technical abilities). If we are to create psychologically safe workplaces, we must get better at what are traditionally called the soft skills, which are, in fact, hard skills to develop and maintain. These skills are often “fluffed over” in management training, but we really benefit from human-centred skills, from being curious and empathetic, from listening, and from being authentic. The benefits that come from building leadership capability to positively influence the psychological safety of their teams and how this in turn impacts performance, wellbeing, mental health, engagement and creativity will be the subject of the next article.

Normalising mental health

Perhaps more in parallel than as an extension of Workplace Health and Safety, society has recently undergone a seismic shift in attitudes toward mental health. Something that was once taboo and certainly poorly understood, it is now almost commonplace to talk about mental health among friends, family, and even colleagues. Recognition of anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other mental health issues has opened the door to talking openly about feelings and emotions. Just as we all have varying levels of physical health and different physical ailments, we all have our own mental health with varying levels of wellness and ailments. When we see someone suffering from a bad back or headache, it’s natural to ask if they are OK. Now we are starting to ask “RU OK?” if we think someone is struggling with their mental health. This acceptance and recognition of mental health is a key facilitator in Psychological Safety’s acceptance at management level. In management and leadership circles, using the term Psychological Safety no longer attracts the puzzled looks it once did.

The growth of Psychological Safety

The momentum is tremendous. Every event, every boardroom, every meeting I go to these days, Psychological Safety and workplace wellbeing is a key discussion point. And it’s not just me and it’s not just Australia – it’s global. Based on Google searches, low levels of interest in the term “Psychological Safety” trundled along for about 10 years before hitting a new peak in March 2017. That new level of interest had doubled by June 2019 and by March 2021 it had doubled again. Perhaps the interest in Psychological Safety has been accelerated by the times in which we live – dealing with a global pandemic – but the sharp increase predates COVID-19 by a couple of years. Just last month the first global standard was published for psychological safety (ISO 45003:2021 Occupational health and safety management — Psychological health and safety at work — Guidelines for managing psychosocial risks).
A few factors, I think, influence the longevity and impact that Psychological Safety is having and is going to have. Firstly, it is well founded in science and it can be measured. Secondly, the linkages between traditional KPIs (lag indicators) and Psychological Safety (lead indicators) are clear and can be demonstrated. This article has looked more at the “push” factor (the stick) behind the rise of Psychological Safety. In the next article I’ll look more at the “pull” factor (the carrot) that is making Psychological Safety the must-have metric of the decades to come.

Linda will conduct a webinar on How Does Psychological Safety Affect Your Company, Your Wellbeing and You on 18 August 2021. You can register for the webinar here.

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