“The physiological states that support defense are incompatible with those that support creativity and expansive theories.”
~Dr. Stephen W. Porges, The Polyvagal Theory Scientist
Before I quit my corporate career of 15+ years, I used to regularly engage in “protective behaviors” that were widely accepted, but in retrospect were quite damaging to my humanity and the humanity of the people with whom I interacted.
What do I mean?
Let me know if you’re familiar with any of these behaviors in the workplace:
Yea, it’s pretty bad, huh? I cringed just typing it.
The sad truth is that these were all behaviors that I "learned” and were "taught" to me explicitly or implicitly by the work culture and by examples set by leaders. When I looked around me, it was the norm if you wanted to succeed, or more often, not get crushed.
Industry giants compete aggressively quarter after quarter to be the top dog. And part of that system breeds offensive and defensive behaviors - it's what we've accepted for decades.
But what if we can do better?
In recent years, leading companies have been flirting with the topic of psychological safety in the workplace. It’s intuitively appealing, however, hard to implement.
WHAT IS PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY?
Psychological safety is the state of feeling protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes that allows a person to express his/her true opinions, authenticity and creative risk-taking without negative consequences (self-image, status or career).
Psychological safety originates from the studies of trauma and polyvagal theory where research showed that an unsafe environment can be detected without our awareness, influence our physiology and block our most effective thinking and creativity (Porges, 1994). A sense of threat in the environment turns off the parts of our brain responsible for higher thinking (Van Der Kolk, 2014). We can't "will" this away or "decide" to react in a different way. This happens because the human body shifts into a survival “fight/flight/freeze” mode when threat is detected.
On a side note, the “freezing” effect is experienced with even greater intensity for people who have experienced trauma at any point in their lives, which is most of us (3 out of 5 adults in the U.S. experienced childhood trauma according to the largest national ACE study).
Although research has been around for decades, psychological safety at work is a newer concept that leading companies are now exploring and adopting. As a former management consultant who has seen the inner workings of many Fortune 500 companies, I know how difficult it is to create a positive workplace culture, especially one that emphasizes cultivating psychological safety.
HOW CAN AN UNSAFE ENVIRONMENT HARM AN ORGANIZATION?
Unlike machinery, we humans have fundamental needs and requirements in order to do our best work. We need to feel the people around us care about us as individuals, and not just what they can get out of us. We need autonomy of time, thought and action. We need to feel like the work we do feeds our purpose in life. We need to feel like we make an impact. We need rest, nourishment and safety. These are not “good to haves” but rather essential for human development, actualization, and wellbeing.
The dangerous effects of an unsafe workplace for employees are countless related to physical and mental wellness and personal wellbeing (including chronic stress and suppression of the immune system and healing [Porges, 2017]). As for the company’s wellness, negative impacts include:
COMPANIES WHO CAN CREATE A PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE CULTURE WILL WIN.
It’s one of the most impactful things an organization can do to improve innovation, creativity, meaning, engagement, community, loyalty, effectiveness and productivity!
No different to any other psychosocial endeavor we humans aspire to such as - love, empathy, connection, altruism - psychological safety can be elusive and hard to standardize and implement at large scale. However, I believe it can be done with a non-egoic and enlightened leader.
For organizations, many view these cultural attributes as selling points as part of their recruiting campaign for their companies. The danger is if the culture doesn’t match up with the marketing, your talent will flee, and they will spread the word on false marketing. Nobody likes a liar.
Often, a deeply meaningful concept such as psychological safety can become another regulation to be followed by employees and "policed" by HR or legal. And that would be ineffective and ironic.
This isn’t about “getting” people who are demonstrating “bad behavior." We are not trying to perpetuate the cycle of "hurt people hurt people." We do want to inform what’s unhelpful and give people a chance to learn. It’s first and foremost, educating the organization about the real missed opportunities if we don’t shift our mindset and change the way we interact with each other.
The intention here is to disrupt the organization’s automatic thoughts and behaviors and challenge us to become better humans, who in turn will create better organizations. We don't need to continue the cycle of aggression, zero-sum or win/lose mentality, all business no heart and frankly trauma in the workplace. As the global workforce evolves and awakens, so must organizations in order to thrive.
HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN WE'RE UNSAFE?
FOR EMPLOYEES, these are some signs your workplace may not be psychologically safe:
FOR LEADERS, what are some examples that create an unsafe work environment?
You ask your employees to or you yourself:
HOW DO WE FOSTER SAFETY?
What can organizations and leaders do to foster psychological safety?
What can you do if you are currently working in an environment that is psychologically unsafe? (Keep in mind, psychological safety is not binary but experienced on a spectrum. Individuals are unique so the perception of safety is relative person to person. Consider options accordingly.)
Just imagine what we can do when we up-level ourselves and take care of those around us to take care of the world. In my imagined world, maybe the workplace doesn't have to be a major source of stress in people's lives. Maybe the workplace becomes a source of support and connection in people's lives where people feel cared for and safe. In that world, organizations can have real power - the power of loyal, healthy, vibrant, engaged and inspired employees.
Let me know what makes you feel unsafe in your workplace in the comments section. I promise you're not alone.