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Two sides of Psychological Safety in practice

This week, LINDA RAY looks at how Psychological Safety (high and low) plays out in the real world.

You don’t have to be a leadership and workplace wellness profession to find examples of Psychological Safety outcomes in everyday life. But understanding how Psychological Safety influences customer services helps to connect the dots. In the aged care sector, I have experienced both ends of the customer service spectrum recently. And as a leadership and workplace wellness and performance professional, I can see the drivers of those vastly different experiences.
2021 has been a challenging year for my family for many reasons and the global pandemic is probably the least of those reasons. At the age of 88, my father has Alzheimers. He also has lung cancer and then fractured his spine. We were left with the incredibly difficult decision to put him into care and, because of the urgency, we had to take whatever bed was available. But you always want the best for your parents so we were soon looking for somewhere better and, fortunately, we found somewhere great.

There could not have been a greater contrast between those two facilities (the first one that we were forced to accept and the second one, which we were able to choose after much consideration). I got to see first-hand the consequences of poor leadership and low levels of psychological safety on the level of care for residents of aged care facilities

Poor customer experience

When you place someone in care, you are trusting they will be looked after. So it was incredibly disappointing and upsetting to find on the third day after admission, that my father was still wearing the same clothes (his bag had not been unpacked and was in his wardrobe), and he had not had a shower. It was also incredibly distressing to see that when we visited him he was clearly in agonising pain.
We questioned the staff who said they asked if my father was in pain but he apparently said he wasn’t. As many of you would know asking someone with Alzheimers if they are in pain when they are lying in bed and not in pain in that moment will say no. Simple observation of him trying to get out of bed and asking him if he is pain would have given them the opportunity to have a conversation with him in the moment and give him the pain relief he so clearly needed. When we raised concerns about his care no one took any responsibility and there was no acknowledgement of there being a problem, beyond the excuse that “some of our staff are inexperienced”. We asked to see his charts and discovered he had been given very limited pain medication in the time since he was admitted. Staff were defensive and seemed to be going through the motions. There was no laughter and the dining room was full of people eating in silence. Even the front office staff were unwelcoming.

Excellent customer experience

Before we transferred our father to another care centre, we took a tour of their facility. The staff were very welcoming and I could see by the way staff were interacting with residents that this was a completely different place, even though it was in the same larger organisation. The staff were warm, welcoming and talking with patients, who they knew by name. It was so profoundly different that as we walked toward the building, staff finishing their shift said hello as they were leaving. All the staff introduced themselves by name and went out of their way to help.
Our visits with Dad at the first place saw us almost begging for food when our visits took much longer than anticipated when we had to shower him. At the second place, the staff proactively came out and asked if we would like a cup of tea. The difference was dealing with staff who genuinely cared about people.

The Psychological Safety difference

The resource allocation to these two aged care places were, presumably, the same. But the difference was people who loved being where they were, in contrast to people who were only turning up because they needed the money.
How a customer experiences an organisation comes down to Psychological Safety and leadership. Whenever you encounter staff who just don’t want to be there, you feel the real impact of low Psychological Safety on the ground and the absence of positive leadership. In the first facility, the only person we had good interactions with told us she was leaving because she couldn’t bear it anymore. Leaders profoundly impact the experience of staff and the team. But leaders also profoundly affect what the end user experiences because those experiences involve interaction with key staff and other members of the team.
TIP: If you are looking at aged care facilities and making comparisons, don’t ask about staff ratios, ask what percentage of agency staff they use. This will be a better indicator of how much staff want to be there.


The consequences of low Psychological Safety are more than just the work environment and the impact on staff and their productivity and creativity. It also affects the customer, which has a very real impact on the health and sustainability of the organisation. In our case, we are at the point of making a formal complaint because the service and conditions were so appalling. In the age care sector, especially, poor customer experience can have devastating consequences because complaints are taken very seriously by the regulators. But the lesson is worth learning in any organisation. The things that make the organisation successful in achieving its objectives depend on people and people need to feel psychologically safe to perform at their best.

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