Psychological safety – trusting people to trust you as a business

Published by Jenny Jones,
17 May 2022

Psychological safety – trusting people to trust you as a business

Psychological safety – the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation – is long established as a crucial component to high-quality decision making, healthy group dynamics and interpersonal relationships. Whilst simple to understand when explained like that, so many of us are unclear on how to really ensure its presence in our organisations and what we are all responsible for in making it happen.

The world of work is changing; COVID-19 has made sure of that. Personally, I feel that the rapid changes we are now seeing are long overdue. Is it because I am a working mother, is it because I work in HR, or is it basically because I am both of those things with a genuine drive to be good at both? Those things, added to my strong values and sense of purpose, drives me to see and understand the true value in authentic and meaningful human-to-human exchange. When you strip it all back, take all the noise away, it is people that matter.

So, in the space of psychological safety, what exactly does this mean at work? Why are the successes of psychological safety shifting? What should we be doing to move with the times to ensure people feel truly valued at work and to make it known that it is equal to all other EHS practices?

COVID-19 turned everything we know on its head; it stopped the ability to say “We have always done things this way” in its tracks. You expect me to trust you to work from home? That was the saying coming from every workplace across the globe. Home working was the most rejected flexible working request before COVID-19, and it is at an interesting crossroads now as we hear the whole “get back to work” chants from certain areas of the economy. Surely work needs to be an in-place experience; how do I know you are working if I can’t see you? How can you be working when there is all that life stuff around you to distract you?

But now the landscape has changed and COVID-19 has shifted the power dynamic. But it really doesn’t need to, because what psychological safety ensures is that there is no power dynamic to start with. The truth is, all that “life stuff” has always been there, it’s just no longer mixed in with commuting or worrying about traffic, drop-offs, wraparound care or the cost of both. It’s been replaced with a better appreciation and understanding of physical and mental wellbeing and the all-important work–life balance we should all strive to have. Back in the day, working longer and harder was the only way to get on, but it was exactly this practice that held so many people back, and made people feel inadequate for having responsibilities and an existence outside of work. What I have learned in more recent times, however, is that it is all those things out of work that are my superpowers in work.

So how do we create an organisation where psychological safety exists? What does it look like daily, and why is it the role of everyone to keep it alive?

Quite simply put; trust. That’s how you know. I think for a long time the view has been do I trust this person to work in my business, and if I do what does that look like. It looks like all these policies and procedures and processes, and basically a sizeable book of “dos and don’ts”, which screams I don’t trust you by the way. As we all know, any good relationship is built on trust, and it is also a two-way thing. We need to balance the two sides of, do I trust this person to work in my business, with accepting that employees will be asking the same question – why should I trust this company to do right by me, why should I invest my time and career in this company? Where we choose to work is important, it’s a third of our life, and people want more from that experience than they have ever wanted before, or, perhaps more honestly, were never confident enough to ask for.

So, how do we get it right? Quite simply: talk to people. Take time for people and ensure that, as people managers, we know exactly what is required from us to ensure others can truly be themselves at work. Everyone has a story, and everyone has a life to live, and if we head into every discussion at work trusting that people only ever want to do their best, we really can’t go wrong.

There is always a why behind everything: every questionable decision or missed deadline, every mistake or mishap. We spend too much time looking at the What was it, When did it happen, How did it happen, Which rule did it break. But how much time is spent on the Why? Not enough, because the why is the people piece. If we spent enough time getting to know our people, trusting them, and treating them like adults, accepting we are all different, creating a great culture that focuses on great behaviours and results, the thing that went wrong probably would never have happened.

When you are at ease with making a mistake and owning it, when you can look at a failure and spot the learnings, when you can put your hands up and say “No”, or “I think differently”, or “I don’t agree and this is why”, only in those times do we grow and it’s in these moments we can support the growth of others.

Psychological safety really is a feeling. It’s all around us, it’s the culture we create, it’s the behaviours we demonstrate and the practices we work with; it’s in every human exchange we have. It really is trust. You can’t see it or put your hands on it, but in a great place to work, it simply just exists. You will know it’s there when you truly feel you can be your best self but also know that when those bad days do happen, you are around people who have your back.

I wish creating a workplace where psychological safety was at the forefront of EHS practice was as understood and important 20 years ago as it is now. I personally would have had a very different experience in my career to date and I’m pretty sure my kids would have had a better version of me as a mother too (though I will let them decide on that one). One thing I do know is that employers who get this right will really have a workforce that goes above and beyond. A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected.

Perhaps the key is to look at your recruitment practices and your company mission. If people don’t know why they are doing what they do in your business and cannot connect their role and contribution to a clear vision, values, and shared set of behaviours, that firmly sits with the employer to make this known. Get it right and show people what matters to you is what matters to them.