Creating psychological safety in the workplace: how to detox your leadership team dynamics
I’ve been working with a CEO recently, helping him crack open some unhelpful habits and long-term dynamics in his senior leadership group. You probably know the type of thing; nodding and agreement during the meeting, but sniping and inaction afterwards, silo thinking and a lack of sharing information. A focus on ‘me and mine’ rather than ‘we and ours’.
What’s interesting is that once we understand that it’s a lack of safety that sits underneath these kinds of behaviours, we can start to approach them with a different mindset, and find new ways for the group to move forward together.
Physical vs psychological safety in the workplace
As I’ve talked about before, our brain wants to keep us safe first and foremost. But, the thing is for our brain, a ‘threat’ doesn’t just mean a threat to our physical safety. The same threat response gets triggered in our brains when we feel a lack of control, if we perceive that we’re being ‘pushed out’ of the group, if we think that something is unfair or when we feel our status is at risk.
That’s quite a list, right?
And as I’m sure you can imagine, whilst this senior leadership group’s physical safety was pretty much guaranteed, there are lots of things that happen in leadership team dynamics that could trigger any, or many, of these more psychological aspects of feeling safe.
So, what can we do to recruit the brains and create that much-needed sense of psychological safety in the workplace, so the senior leaders can create a more constructive dynamic?
Well, the other thing to realise about the brain is that it has limited processing capacity. So much so, that it can’t process all of the incoming data from our environment; it’s just too much. Because of this, we filter information and create ‘stories’ to make sense of what we’re experiencing. The challenge in this is that the stories aren’t always helpful, but the brain doesn’t know this – it accepts whatever our interpretation of our experiences is and reacts accordingly.
Operate in reality, not stories
The first thing we need to do is to start operating in reality. We can do this by being curious and asking questions of ourselves and others to challenge and check the stories we’re telling ourselves. (If you’ve already read my book Becoming AntiFragile, you will recognise this as one of the ROBUST principles I developed. If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, it’s available here).
3 questions to ask to create more psychological safety in the workplace
I helped this CEO and his senior leaders do this by teaching them key strategic ‘question loops’ to help them stay curious, and open to the possibility that the story they were telling themselves may not be completely accurate.
For example, when they were feeling anxious because they perceived they were losing control, they could ask themselves:
What can I control?
What can’t I control?
What can I influence?
And then focus on the things that they could control, instead of creating stories and wasting energy on the areas they could not influence.
We also explored questions they could raise with each other and ground rules for doing so.
The second thing that worked well with this group and other CEOs and senior leadership teams I work with, is to have them focus on the purpose of their work as a team. Often in organisations, senior leadership groups get stuck in their functional purpose, which is anchored in organising, coordination and reporting.
Fundamentally, the real purpose of the SLT in any organisation is the human-centred ‘function’ of leading. Deeply embedded in that responsibility is understanding and communicating the purpose of our work together and the difference we want it to make. And then helping to create culture by role-modelling the mindsets, attitudes and behaviours that will help us achieve it.
Does this mean that we put aside commerciality? Absolutely not.
Does it mean that CEOs and senior leaders must be perfect? Probably not.
But it does mean that they accept that one of their responsibilities as a senior leader is to challenge themselves to move beyond playground politics and ego-driven behaviour, and to hold themselves accountable to do the work needed to get there.
Embedding a culture of psychological safety in the workplace – from the top down
By connecting this SLT back to the purpose of the work of the organisation and the difference they wanted it to make in the future, they were able to see their role as stewards of that vision and that it was a bigger, more infinite game that they wanted to play.
This work doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible to change unhealthy and unhelpful dynamics if the leaders in the group are willing to do the work.
And if they’re not?
Well that’s a whole other situation that I often help CEO’s with too!
If you, your CEO or your organisation need some help cracking open unhealthy and unhelpful SLT dynamics let me know – I’d love to help. Book in a free 30 minute, consultation here.
Dr Paige Williams
International Speaker, Author, Mentor
Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.