The Missing Link in Psychological SafetyOct 14, 2020
First, a story...
Many years ago now, my first Leadership graduate course was taught by a former military psychologist. The 8 am start time, combined with the fact that it ran 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, with no coffee available on campus until after 10:30 am, was brutal. What I thought would have been a fascinating course taught by a fascinating professor soon became a trial. Clear straight away was his penchant for lecture-style delivery.
The majority of people in this programme were (or were hoping to be) educational leaders. We were set up in a horseshoe, and the professor leaned on a table at the front of the room and talked. And talked. And. Talked. My fellow students were accustomed to (or hoping for) a more conversational course, no doubt. After about 4 days of this verbal tirade, with nary a discussion (or even an invitation to questions) in sight, the woman to my immediate right (a school principal) put up her hand.
She wasn’t acknowledged for quite some time. I could feel the tension in the room, and the energy vibrating off her was getting deeply uncomfortable. Finally, unavoidably, the instructor sniped: “What?”
Confidently, she spoke up: “I was wondering when we were going to be able to participate more fully in the class?”
Now, in kid-schooling, a kid that asked that would be considered cute, followed by snotty, followed by confrontational (depending on age). At the undergraduate level, such a question would put you in the instructor’s crosshairs pretty quickly, too.
But in graduate school, you’re in a different milieu entirely: these are generally accomplished adults who are here by choice to further their learning and career aspirations (especially in a field like Leadership). These are grown-ups. They enter the space expecting to be treated as such.
So when he answered: “I’ll tell you when you know enough to participate.”
If you ever want to hear what a real “crickets” moment sounds like, well, you should have been in that room.
While she may have been vocally silent, the nuclear explosion of energy that radiated off her in that moment more than made up for the silence.
I think my eyebrows may have cleared my hairline.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t even a little bit interested in “participating” for two reasons: first, it was abundantly apparent that this dude had no interest in hearing anyone else’s voice but his own - ‘holding forth’ was clearly his happy place. Second, I had recently met the man who would become my husband, and I was secretly writing letters (Yes!! LETTERS. It was that long ago!), and I couldn’t take notes, write letters, AND participate. A girl has her limits.
The dynamics in that room changed forever in that moment. I don’t think a single person in the room respected him - or even pretended to - after that point. The amount of side-eye, eye-roll and death glares (all the eyes! All the time!) was spectacular.
But he had us by the nether regions: every one of us needed to pass this class in order to progress in the programme. He was the only teacher. And he knew it - and he knew we knew it.
What does this story have to do with the idea of ‘psychological safety’, you ask?
What is ‘Psychological Safety’?
The concept of psychological safety is the work of Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School Professor. It is defined as
a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
Leaving aside the irony that this was a leadership programme AND it was taught by a military psychologist (and believe me, those things have NEVER escaped me), this man, in this moment, destroyed every scrap of psychological safety that might have ever existed or ever have been possible for this group.
What was lost? Again, everything. When you take away someone’s opportunity to speak up, speak out or otherwise express their lived experience, you create fear, resentment, distrust, anger, hopelessness, apathy, bitterness and, frankly, sow the seeds of real discontent. And you can also do long-lasting damage to that individual’s concept of her worth and ability to speak.
Further, as a supposed-educator, this man took away the requisite conditions for true learning: risk-taking, mistake-making, challenging ideas, and changing the world. My instincts are he took his power position (and you don’t need me to tell you all the ways he was in the power-position in that room) and used it to quash anything that didn’t fit the narrative he imposed on his world - and, subsequently, his students. So, by stripping the psychological safety from the experience, he “taught” everyone in that room that rote memory, blind acceptance, silent acquiescence, and bullying were the norm.
Where is Psychological Safety being talked about?
Psychological safety is most frequently discussed in business terms: how do groups work with/without this form of safety, what does happiness or productivity look like, or how does it affect the bottom line.
And then, generally, the advice moves on to “how to be an effective leader that promotes psychological safety”, with wise advice (and it IS wise, tbh) to “listen, encourage, accept, ask open and curious questions, support diversity”, and so forth.
Between #MeToo, COVID and BLM/BIPOC (and numerous other social awareness/justice initiatives), the original terrain of “psychological safety” has been obliterated, and we’re now beginning the process of terraforming a new world. It isn’t just about giving lip-service to “giving everyone an equal voice” anymore.
(And FYI - those that haven’t gotten that message are going to find out pretty soon that it’s not IF, it’s WHEN the terraforming is going to happen. Just IMO.)
Assumptions about Psychological Safety can be dangerous
But I want to dial the discussion back a bit: all of this talk of psychological safety presupposes a few key ideas. And those assumptions are dangerous.
For one, the conversations are almost entirely business and leadership-related - and psychological safety is critical in LIFE, not just work. “Giving” people (and, in my world in particular, women) “psychological safety” in the workplace, but denying or demeaning it in every other facet of life flies in the face of….well, everything, really.
Two, blowback: “saving face” is a very real behaviour found in those that “provide” psychological safety. It takes incredible confidence to allow people psychological safety when you don’t feel truly authentic or safe as a leader yourself - especially when you are the one who’s “leading” the group (or, at least, responsible for them and their work, in some form or fashion). (See my earlier story of the professor for how that can play out in the “real world”).
Creating a space where people feel safe to speak, challenge, query, share, etc., means you face the very real possibility that YOU (the leader/facilitator) will feel threatened (and it’s often perception, not reality, but that doesn’t change the blowback impulse). “Punishment” can be very real and very subtle, either in the moment or after the fact, and would-be speakers are fine-tuned for that possibility.
Three, it assumes that you (the person whom psychological safety is meant to empower) have the skill and confidence to speak up in a psychologically-safe environment. It’s sort of like someone telling you that the piano in the room is for “anyone to play”, and that “no one will judge”. This may be entirely true: it doesn’t do a whole lot to change people’s core behaviour, though.
Think about it: A few will sit down and play a concerto; a few more will sit down and pound out the first few chords of “Werewolves of London” or the trailing melody of “Fur Elise”; a few might try chopsticks. Many will just tentatively play a note, surreptitiously, from their spot beside the piano (actually being in front of the piano is a step too far).
The ones who really embrace the invitation are the children: they are just interested in how it works - what happens with harder, softer, glissando, faster, slower, all the notes at once, and on and on. And you know what? An adult comes along and tells them they’re “not doing it the right way” or “they’re bothering people” or “that’s enough”. The basic idea is that that form of expression (albeit experimental) isn’t valid or valued unless it is a) permitted and b) skilled.
How long does it take for a child to absorb that lesson? Pretty damn quickly, in most cases. This leads to a culture where few feel valid or valued in their attempts at expression - in anything but the very few things they are ‘knowledgeable’, ‘qualified’ or ‘authorized’ to speak about. This is reality for many, MANY women.
Psychological Safety - the Missing Ingredients
So, psychological safety is all well and fine, but if the would-be speakers have confidence, but not skill, they will be judged (they WILL: you know it, and so do I), and the efficacy of their communication will be lessened. And if the would-be speaker has skill, but no confidence, that will ALSO detract from effectiveness - the speaker knows it, and so do we. We might not be able to put words to our experiences in this, but we certainly know how it feels.
What does all of this have to do with Public Speaking and Psychological Safety? Well, the case I’ve been trying to make is that YES, it is important; YES, the discussions with ‘how-to’s’ and advice are useful and necessary; and YES, we need to be super-aware of the power dynamics at play in these situations (with an eye to vast array of diversities that trigger these dynamics).
But NO, it is not enough to simply create the space. In many cases, “build it and they will come” just doesn’t happen.
As I’ve argued, it takes confidence and skill to step effectively into that safety.
And guess who ALSO frequently has a deficit in the confidence and skill department when it comes to public speaking??
You guessed it: EXACTLY those people who also need and benefit from psychologically-safe spaces and cultures. These are the people who haven’t had the advantages of speaking and debate classes; they often haven’t been in leadership roles in their communities or families (especially if they’re female); they’ve been taught to second-guess their ideas, judge their speaking abilities (based, oftentimes, on notions of appearance and perfection), squash any messages that are “too” emotional, pretend they are “just like everyone else” (“everyone else” being the dominant group, btw).
So when you are discussing psychological safety, and the need to create that space, take a moment to consider whether you also need to provide opportunities to develop those skills and confidence to take advantage of those moments. Maybe you’re the leader, and you need to consider your team’s needs; maybe you’re the aspiring speaker, and you want to make sure that when the opening presents itself, you’ll be ready to walk through the door.
Ready to move? Ready to make the difference? Get in touch.
Go forth, be heard!
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