How to create psychological safety in your organisation – and why it matters

When we feel safe, we are smarter people, says the author of Rise Together, Sam Mather. Find out how leaders and organisations can provide meaning and stability, and avoid triggering their employees’ fears

‘Psychological safety’ is a term made popular by Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, in 1999. Since then, advancements in brain research can now provide scientific rationale for why we need to create a safe environment that encourages employee retention.

The brain is hard wired to keep us safe. When we feel safe both physically and psychologically, we are able to think clearly, solve problems, and be creative and innovative. When we feel safe, we are smarter people. And that’s exactly what organisations need: smart people.

Having a common purpose is key to creating a sense of safety – a horizon that remains fixed, no matter how choppy the sea. It is something employees can focus on to get them through the swell of the waves, when seasickness threatens. When times are rough, our resources are focused on self-preservation and we can lose big-picture thinking, including forgetting the organisation’s mission, so leaders need to be able to articulate the purpose of the individual’s job role in the context of the mission.

Can each of your employees articulate how they add value to your organisation and, ultimately, the world around them? What is their purpose? Are they proud of what they do and who they work for?

It is the role of the leader to translate the organisation’s vision and mission for the employee in this way. Research has shown that employees with meaningful and purposeful work have improved psychological wellbeing and motivation. Meaning helps create stability and a sense of consistency. So how can leaders achieve this?

The power of storytelling

A leader should know enough about each of their team members to know what’s important to them and to communicate the organisation’s vision and mission in a way that resonates with each of them. A powerful way to do this is through storytelling.

Traditionally, when organisations wanted to gain buy-in, they provided facts and figures that supported their decisions, but this is based on the assumption that humans are logical beings. We now know differently: emotions come first and fast.

Stories should provide facts, but they also need to generate emotion because the parts of the brain that are involved in emotion generation and processing (the amygdala and hippocampus) are also involved in moving memories from short-term storage to long-term storage. The memories you can most easily recollect are ones that created emotions. Storytellers articulate messages in a way that engages our hearts first and then our minds. A compelling, relatable narrative generates buy-in and influences others. Stories can help form positive attitudes, although a story designed to create fear can generate emotions just as easily as a story that inspires hope or happiness. In fact, as fear is a survival response, we are more likely to remember events that create negative emotions.

Often, the best leaders are the best storytellers because they are able to use stories to create meaningful connections with goals and roles. Through stories, the leader builds trust. Providing a glimpse into the leader’s character can help develop a connection and shared values; as such, storytelling can be an effective tool for influencing and enabling organisational change.

Make your story meaningful. This helps boost employee resources because, when times are tough, the belief that they are doing something positive and meaningful provides positive resources. Job titles run contrary to this idea – they are often convoluted and meaningless. Customers don’t care whether you are the Associate to the Executive Manager of Second Tier Solutions, or even Executive Vice President. What is important is not your title, but what you do. What value you add. Your purpose. Improved titles may be: ‘I make IT better for our customers’, or ‘I create ways for our employees to improve’.

When our fears are triggered, our level of the hormone, cortisol, rises to prepare us for fight or flight. Part of that process involves narrowing our peripheral vision, reducing our hearing and deprioritising our processing brain. This means that once an employee sees or hears something that triggers their fear response, everything else fades into the background. The rest of the message needs to be delivered when they are over the shock and their cognitive brain comes back online.

Rethink communication

It’s also essential to think carefully about any communication to employees. Communication is a complex business. Organisations often unwittingly create fear and disable employees’ ability to hear the message, and then leaders wonder why people ‘just aren’t getting it’. Think about the words you use in an announcement, for instance, and how they may trigger fears. A company annual report I read recently aims to achieve the following in the next 12 to 18 months:

  • Faster innovation through digital transformation
  • A simpler, more cost-efficient organisation by harmonising and simplifying our organisational structure
  • Returning significant cash to shareholders

I am sure the board members were delighted with this, but what a terrifying message for employees.

When employees see ‘faster innovation’, they interpret it as ‘my job is going to be automated’ or ‘I’ll need to be smarter and quicker and I don’t know if I can be’. ‘A simpler, more cost-efficient organisation,’ says one thing: job losses. Any sense of safety is gone. Likewise, ‘returning cash to shareholders,’ means the company needs more profit – i.e., cutting budgets and jobs and performing more. Besides, to be honest, only shareholders care about shareholders. All the other good stuff in the report is lost because employees read the above bullet points and their fears are activated, cortisol kicks in and they can’t take in the rest.

All in all, this annual statement does not create any safety or comfort for anyone except shareholders and board members. The statements above could have been reworded in ways that quieten our innate fears.

For instance, instead of saying ‘faster innovation through digital transformation,’ it could say: ‘as part of our drive to *insert organisational purpose/ mission here*, we want to better provide *product/ service* to our customers. To do so, we are going to provide employees with improved tools to do their jobs. These include… ’

Instead of, ‘a simpler more cost-efficient organisation by harmonising and simplifying our organisational structure,’ it could say: ‘we will make it easier to work together, eliminating barriers to developing best practice and bringing teams together’.

And, ‘returning significant cash to shareholders,’ could be switched for: ‘we will make our business more cash rich, which will benefit us all’.

Think about the words you use when communicating. Organisational phrases such as ‘downsizing’, ‘increased efficiencies’ and ‘repurposing’ fool no-one. They only awaken employees’ fears and remove safety.

Main image (above) credit: Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

Sam Mather is a neuropractitioner, leadership consultant and the author of Rise Together (Rethink Press, 2021).

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