Psychological Safety is fast becoming one of the hottest concepts in the leadership and workplace culture domains, yet it remains somewhat elusive, misunderstood and challenging to achieve.
The notion that a team or organisation should have “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (Edmondson,1999) appears quite simple, but why is it so important, and how do we practically build and maintain it?
Being able to, respectfully and safely, share ideas, speak up, challenge issues, and show vulnerability is a critical part of a high performing workplace culture. It underpins creativity, innovation, safety and workplace mental health. In fact, in a 2015 study, Google found that psychological safety is the most important attribute of a successful team.
Working within a psychologically safe workplace means that employees feel they are "able to show and employ their self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" (Kahn 1990). In these contexts, people can take interpersonal and professional risks, be authentic, and build trusting and robust interpersonal relationships.
The new ways of working we have all been subjected to are stretching our interpersonal skills. In order to build psychologically safe teams, people need to know how to respond to difficult emotions and experiences. Opening up to challenging and risky conversations, or volunteering ideas on different approaches to old problems, can be uncomfortable.
Knowing how to use curiosity to navigate these contexts is critical. Our aim is to enable people to become more comfortable with their discomfort – we like to use the term discomfortable – so that they can lean into difficult personal and interpersonal situations safely. We help people build key intra- and inter-personal competencies to create a psychologically safe culture where people can raise issues impacting on mental health, safety, conduct, and risk early and preventively.
We can deliver this program at level – separately to leaders vs. all of staff – or we can provide it to whole of teams. Each of these approaches would lead to a different emphasis to match the audience needs.
With the new WHS regulations focusing on the management and mitigation of psychosocial hazards, it is imperative that organisations understand how to fulfil their positive duty in response to these regulations. This requires that all leaders across the organisation – from the executive through to local area managers – have a mature understanding of workplace factors leading to psychosocial risk.
The objective of our program is to help organisations meet their regulatory and compliance obligations, but also to go beyond this to create a genuine and quantifiable impact on peoples experience of work.
Developing psychosocial leadership capabilities across the organisation presents an important control strategy for organisations, to ensure leaders understand their positive duty to consult their teams around their experience of work, understand the nature of psychosocial hazards and how these can combine to create psychosocial risks, and strategies and pathways for taking an early intervention and prevention approach to risk management.
Our approach also involves working with teams across an organisation to understand the critical importance of psychological health and safety, how to respond to psychosocial hazards and provide support to others who may be impacted, and in this way developing effective local area resolution capabilities for teams to build a psychosocially safe workplace environment.
Our programme aims to provide the how when it comes to managing psychosocial risks in the workplace.
One of the most common sources of stress at work is other people, and yet organisations struggle to take an early intervention and prevention approach to managing complex interpersonal behaviour. Few managers have the skills to engage in these difficult conversations, and few teams understand how to address complex interpersonal behaviour before it gets out of hand.
This presents a significant challenge as organisations are now tasked with the positive duty to prevent harassment, discrimination, and bullying at work.
But what does prevention look like? While it may be about developing policies and procedures, regular assessment, or the promotion of values focused on inclusion, diversity, and equality, it is also about ensuring that people know how to talk about these issues in the workplace. Ideally, colleagues can raise interpersonal dynamics, perceived incivility, or behaviours with each other directly. However, power differentials and confidence can get in the way. This is where local area managers need to have the skills to step in and have these difficult conversations with their team members.
Too often organisations confuse early intervention with early reporting. Yet, when interpersonal issues must be reported outside of the team, it can create negative consequences for all involved. While formal reporting processes are critical for protecting people, too often they are the first port of call because people don’t know what else to do, and don’t have the confidence to raise these issues within their teams. We aim to develop capabilities within managers and their teams to resolve issues early and locally wherever possible.
Our approach is not only to help people to ‘speak up’ about complex interpersonal behaviour at work, but also to ‘speak with’ each other, and take a collaborative approach to these issues wherever possible, therefore enabling a pathway for early intervention and prevention.
Whether it is managing conflicts of interest, identifying and responding to vulnerable customers, upholding interpersonal and team behaviour, providing supportive leadership, or maintaining a safe working environment, the ethical dimensions to these everyday matters are often complex and grey. Too often the solution is to focus on a compliance approach.
Educating employees on what they should and should not do or relying on code-of conduct or grievance and whistle-blower provisions, does not take this complexity seriously. These current best-practice approaches fail to provide employees with the tools they need to reason their way through grey-area ethical problems and fall short of changing behaviour. Poor decision-making emerges when there is a failure to provide leaders and their teams with the insights, strategies, and support they need to navigate complex ethical challenges.
If organizations are to respond meaningfully to the everyday ethical dilemmas they are faced with, they need to move beyond compliance and empower their employees to become moral agents through a culture-based and leadership-based approach to building integrity and ethics at work.
Moving forward, a failure to engage meaningfully with building integrity and ethics at work will result in lost opportunities to attract socially conscious consumers and employees and will have a clear impact on the bottom line.
As a field of research and practice, Behavioural Ethics provides critical insights into understanding how and why people are at risk of making poor ethical decisions, overlooking the ethical dimensions to problems, or acting in ways that do not align with their own or the organisations ethical standards. Behavioural ethics reveals ‘blindspots’ (arising from workplace environmental factors) that impact on decision-making and judgement in ways that are often outside of conscious awareness, and in doing so provides an early intervention and prevention framework for identifying and targeting risk factors that exist within organisational processes and systems. This, in turn, empowers organisations to build workplace environments defined by high levels of integrity and employee mental health.
Why are curious conservations so critical in the modern workplace? Robust interpersonal relationships and a flourishing organizational culture turn on the capability for assertive, respectful, and open communication. From the executive to the front line of an organization, effective risk management depends on the ability to interrogate and openly report issues of organizational significance. The capacity to engage in productive disagreement is also critical to building mentally healthy workplaces defined by high levels of engagement.
Yet, few people have the skills, and even less so the confidence, to step into challenging conversations. This means that people often do not feel heard, that inappropriate behaviour remains unaddressed, and that decision-making may be unduly influenced by the status quo or a limited number of viewpoints. Building the capability to engage in challenging conversations is critical to fostering a psychologically safe work environment.
Our curious conversations program brings together the latest behavioural science on effective communication practices and interpersonal relationship management to ensure that people and their leaders have the confidence and capabilities they need to conduct the conversations that matter.
Social capital is a term given to the relationships that make organizations work effectively. It also nicely captures the notion that investments in these relationships return real gains that show up on the bottom line. Unfortunately, social capital at work is under threat. With the sudden reliance on virtual teams, leaders are often ill-equipped with the knowledge of how to build interpersonal connection in low cue online environments. Flexible and hybrid work environments mean fewer water cooler conversations, and less opportunity to connect outside of task-focused meetings.
While people are enjoying the extra control and flexibility afforded by hybrid work, they often underestimate the importance of staying connected to their teams. Workloads are also increasing, meaning that leaders and their teams have less bandwidth to focus on the human aspects of team functioning, and building relationships in turbulent times and through constant change is tough. Yet, building meaningful connections at work is incredibly important:
- For almost 70% of people, their manager has more impact on their mental health than their therapist or their doctor—and it’s equal to the impact of their partner.
- Feeling connected to other people at work is one of the most important contributors to feeling that our work is meaningful and presents a significant resource people can draw on to improve their experience of work.
- Loneliness at work is a significant mental health issue that is on the rise.
- Cultivating shared collective identity predicts improved business performance.
Our connected leaders and teams program aims to create awareness of the importance of social connection at work, to understand the costs of disconnection and loneliness, and to reflect on opportunities and learn concrete tools and strategies for leaders and teams to build greater social connection, and in turn more vibrant, high performing team cultures.
Psychological Agility is grounded in the understanding that we are often not in control of the many challenges and difficulties we face at work and in life. It is built on the notion that sometimes the best way to manage the ups and downs in life is not to try to change them, or to change ourselves, but to change how we relate to these experiences.
Psychological Agility enables people to respond to disruptions without feeling overwhelmed, allowing them to let go of control strategies, lean into challenges, and sit calmly with discomfort – we call this ‘getting discomfortable’. It also enables people to walk away from a black and white view of their emotional worlds and understand that their uncomfortable emotional experiences are informative, offer the opportunity for development and growth, and can even strengthen their relationships with others.
In this way, responding with Psychological Agility is not about trying to avoid challenging emotions, or always rushing to reduce stress; it involves a recognition that emotions are data points, not directives, and that knowing how to stand back and see our responses more objectively can lead to better decision-making.
Psychological Agility gives people the capacity to respond rather than react to difficult experiences, and this is critical for navigating conflict, maintaining positive interpersonal relationships, and building effective team and organizational cultures. It allows for individuals and teams to adapt quickly and effectively to a changing set of demands. Teams that operate in this way are more efficient and effective, are more innovative and creative, and enjoy a more open and honest culture.
Building the capacity for Psychological Agility also allows people to focus on what matters and to act on their values rather than their emotional impulses. It is not just about asking people to be ‘more resilient’, it’s about equipping people with the capabilities to self-navigate amid difficult and uncertain times.
Researchers have found people with high levels of Psychological Agility (cf. psychological flexibility) were better at managing the stress associated with the pandemic, and psychological qualities of flexibility and agility are frequently identified key leadership skills.