Psychological Safety or the competitive advantage in businesses today

    Paula Lazo Rivera

    Recently, I had the privilege of working with a bright group of executives from a global tech company.

    Their company’s culture (or simply put “the way things are done around here”) stems from six pillars among which is Psychological Safety, a huge concept and one I was not fully familiar with.

    I became fascinated by the work of Amy Edmonson, an American scholar who is currently the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. Edmonson is also the author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth” (Wiley, 2018). She has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 and was honoured with its Talent Award in 2017 (from Wikipedia).

    This global tech company has embraced the concept (or rather the mindset) of Psychological Safety as part of their company culture pillars, recognising that for a tech company which operates in the ever-changing market of technology (and in a VUCA environment as any other multinational in the world), the only way to stay in business and continue growing is to create and sustain a work environment where people strive. And by doing so, most significantly, recognise that their most important asset are their people and the wellbeing of their minds, bodies and emotions.

    What is a work environment where people strive?

    According to professor Edmonson’s work, people strive in an environment where they feel they can speak up.

    In other words an environment where people feel safe to be vulnerable, open up and share opinions and ideas, ask questions, give and get feedback, admit mistakes and ask for help without fear of being put down, undermined, criticized and having repercussions.

    In 2012, the internet giant, Google, embarked on a quest called Project Aristotle, to decode the recipe for high performing teams. After studying 180 teams, going through data like team composition, trying to find patterns, they could not find any, any other than habits and norms that played out differently depending on the different teams. At the end it all boiled down to people feeling safe, emotionally and psychologically safe.

    If Google, one of the biggest corporations of the modern world, says it, it gets attention, other companies get curious and some start to adopt these views and practices.

    Companies strive for sustainability, many want to do it not only to prevent compromising the wellbeing of their employees but as a mean to nourish and invest in it.

    Professor Edmonson says “A culture of psychological safety is going to be increasingly important in the future of work, in fact it will be a competitive advantage” and some companies, like the client I worked with are serious about it.

    How do you create a psychological safe environment?

    By cultivating behaviours that promote psychological safety:

    Engaging:this means being fully present in interactions with other people, physically, mentally and emotionally. Listening actively – not waiting for the other person to shut up so you can speak – keeping eye contact, an open and receiving body posture, quieting your inner talk, suspending judgement and listening at all levels: facts, feelings, values.

    Yes, and-ing:keeping an open mind and building on others’ ideas; cultivating a mindset of “both/and” (rather than either/or). A simple way to practice this behavior is to build on other people’s ideas by using “and” (as a connector of ideas) rather than a “but” (a separator of ideas).

    Exploring:a mindset of viewing mistakes and failures as learning opportunities; looking at failures with different lenses, analyzing them and treating them differently. Not all failures are created equal and psychological safe environment need to promote “intelligent failures” (huge concept and work started by Duke Professor of Business Administration, Sim Sitkin), failures that allow us to experiment and explore.

    Including:building and cultivating an inclusive attitude toward everyone; expressing curiosity and interest about who each person is and can contribute with; considering that every person brings value. In other words cultivating an attitude of appreciation and humility toward others.

    Empathizing:viewing the world from other standpoints; acknowledging yours and others inner experiences. As Houston University Professor, Dr. Brené Brown says “empathy fuels connection” and you show empathy when you take the other person’s perspective, you stay out of judgement and listen, you recognize emotions in another person that you may have felt before (and if you haven’t you stay open and curious), you communicate that you recognize that emotion – and if you don’t you consider what it might feel like and or remain curious and open and say: “I may not know this emotion but I wonder what it might feel like”.

    Inquiring:asking open ended questions from a true place of curiosity and exploration especially in situations of conflict so to understand the other person’s perspective – and eventually challenging your own one.


    Practicing all these behaviours might really challenge you out of your comfort zone.

    What if you would try one or two and see what happens?

    Building and sustaining a psychological safe environment is an ongoing endeavor. The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the world around us will challenge and tempt us into taking “shortcuts” and “detours” that will offer all the “right reasons” for not cultivating these behaviours: we’re too busy, we need to meet deadlines, no one understands my challenges….

    The truth is that this is hard work.

    Keeping work environments psychologically safe, where everyone of us can speak up without fear of being judged and criticized, where we can feel safe to be vulnerable and make mistakes and put aside our defense systems, is a commitment worth making.

    A psychological safe environment is a fertile soil where people can access their most creative selves in support of self, team and organizational growth and development.

    If you would like to learn more about psychological safety, here’s more:

    This is an invitation to start, hold and facilitate conversations towards regeneration. We are in need of moments to reconnect to ourselves, with others and with nature. We all can do something to nourish our world through our communication. 

    Some months ago I wrote a piece on regenerative listening (you may check it here). I am excited to offer here some concrete insights on how to practice it within a holistic approach of regenerative communication.

    Each time we engage in conversation we have the opportunity to go a little further than coordinating actions. Often I see we use that window to go around making judgements of things and people. And when our judgements about objects or situations differ from the judgements of others, we often find ourselves caught in discussions defending our ideas or trying to prove others wrong. I see a clear opportunity to use our communication abilities more wisely.


    Communicating what’s alive.

    My first invitation comes in a question: What would happen if you switch the focus from going around making judgements to going around sharing how you feel about things? 

    The bottom line is to go from “this coffee is great!” to “I love this coffee”, or something similar. 

    Obviously that change alone won’t do much, but think of those times when you put out a judgement on someone you love. Imagine sharing instead what happens in you and to you.

    Let me tell you that it will be a little weird at first; we are so used to making judgements that vocabulary for expressing our inner life might be forgotten. So, give yourself some time to develop some emotional vocabulary. Navigate your feelings and needs (you might want to check out the links for a list of each); connect with them, see when and how do you feel those feelings, and what needs are linked to the feelings. Committing time to sharing what’s alive in you will allow you to connect with others from a new perspective. How do you feel when you are heard like this?

    You will, hopefully, experience the bliss of being listened to. You will probably start feeling less relational stress since you will realise that other people see you, your feelings and your needs. You will start experiencing the transformative magic of empathy and connection. Very likely it will not happen instantly, but rather it will develop gradually as you start practising it. And you will nourish it by listening to others in such a way they feel the same way. 


    What do you do when you listen?

    This question is my second invitation. Listening can be a very loving act. It can open and hold a space in which we share and process our life, our challenges and experiences. Yet, most of the listening done in the world has little awareness about this potential. Aiming at coordinating actions and planning, factual listening allows us to download or intake information and to confirm suppositions. To allow love in our listening we have to involve our heart into the practice. Aiming at nurturing the connection, we open up to empathic listening.

    If you ponder this issue for a while it is likely that you will start realising what you do when you listen. Are you welcoming the other person with her/his story?, are you empathising with or judging him/her? Are you thinking of the next question or your argument about what is being said? These are all listening actions and together with intention, presence and awareness they shape the listening space we hold and share.

    Once you become aware of the listening actions, you will likely see there are several ways in which our listening can result in blockage of empathy and thus in a weaker connection: lecturing, minimizing, comparing, to name a few. These behaviors do not offer empathy, they bypass the heart and offer instead a mental/head response.

    When we start practicing regenerative listening, we find a spectrum of other listening actions. Let’s review some of them:

    Dwell the sacred space of listening. When I listen with full attention it is common for me to acknowledge my mind offering me material (thoughts or ideas) to entertain an inner conversation as a background of the listening. Everytime I have the option of staying fully in the listening space, or going into that offering, thus splitting attention and eroding the listening space. This happens to everyone and sometimes we don’t even realise that we have taken the second option. We may find ourselves already in an internal dialogue. From the wisdom of meditation we know we can come back to the present anytime by focusing on our breathing.

    Let go of that irresistible comment. I used to find myself clinging to a great idea, or comment, my mind offers me while listening to somebody. “I have to share it before I forget it”, I’d think to myself. Whether waiting for the right moment to share, or holding it until we think the other person has finished, either way will very likely disconnect us from the listening space. My invitation is to train letting go of such great ideas. They might come back later on and, if not, be happy; you stayed connected.

    Reflecting: After a person has said something, I can simply say “I hear you say …” and say in equal or similar words what the other person said. It may sound tedious, but this addresses a very common pitfall of our communication: we tend to think others hear what we said the same way we said it. For so many reasons this is not necessarily the case. Reflecting what someone said offers space to express again things that could have been misunderstood. Moreover, the reflecting action nurtures the listening space and generates a positive confirmation that what is shared is received. One important aspect to consider here is that reflecting is not interpretation: I am not trying to understand what the other person said referring to me previous knowledge of the person or the situation. I am listening to what the other person said and just confirming that. Only after acknowledging what I have listened I may go onto: resonating, offering a repertoire, celebrating or just sharing silence.

    Resonating. If what the other person said wakes up a memory or a feeling in me, I might communicate that after reflecting. “I resonate with…” is now common for me to say after I have listened. This allows me to find common grounds and more empathy in the conversation. It nurtures connection and allows me to open up to share my experiences, feelings and needs. Yet, from my own experience, resonating can also block empathy. Sometimes people just need to be listened to (they need to feel empathy for their feelings and needs). If the reflecting is too short, or the feeling being expressed too big that requires multiple reflection actions, or even if I jump into resonating too often; it might be better to choose another listening action in order to nourish the listening space.

    Hearing the feelings and needs. Another listening action is offering a repertoire of feelings and needs around what is being shared. One simple way of doing this is listening to the feelings and needs of others. Beyond the very words others are expressing, there is a feeling and a need. Go little by little, perhaps at first just offering words about feeling to help the other person identify how they feel. Bear in mind that it’s always more powerful to utter your own feelings, so offering a repertoire to help another put their own feelings in words is an art.

    Celebrating. “That is such great news”. This common response to listening a happy story is an act of celebration, especially if it’s said with intention and with feeling. I have discovered that it can be a lot more interesting when I shift that expression so it reveals who is celebrating. “It makes me happy to hear that! So many times I heard of your efforts, I’m happy to celebrate your accomplishment!” There is a big difference there. Once you start realising what’s different, you will perhaps start seeing a whole world of subtleties in the use of language; little keys that open up your own heart and the hearts of others.

    Dwelling shared silence. If you practice this listening actions is very likely that you will start noting moments of silence in conversations. Despite having a lot of subjects you could share with the other person, you will start having a shared moment of silence that will feel full, peaceful. It is in this moment that you start sharing some other very rich means of communication, such as gestures, looks and other subtle expressions. Also, it is in this silence that often come back some of those great ideas that had first manifested in listening.

    If you want just one sentence to take home today, let me share this wonderful question the late Marshal Rosenberg used when teaching non-violent communication: ‘Would you be willing to tell me what you heard and how do you feel about it?’. Next time you share something with a loved one, finish with that and see what happens.

    May you develop your regenerative communication and nourish your relationships with loving listening. May you live and share peace.

    By Kairos Associate: Tomas Gueneau.

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