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  • James Judge

Psychological safety (with Rachael McMahon, Tim Grenfell and Leonie Graham)


Psychological Safety.


What is it? Why is it important? How do you create and maintain it in your workplace?


It's National Mental Health Month, a good time to repost this discussion with three people who all have important insights on the issue of psychological safety, what it is, and how to create and maintain it in the workplace.

Rachael McMahon, Director and Principal Psychologist with the Australian Public Service Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit explains that "environments that are psychological safe allow for safe interpersonal risk taking." That's a complicated way of saying that people feel that their relationships, their standing and worth within a particular group will be maintained, even in the event that they get something wrong or they disagree with the majority.


As humans we are hardwired for social acceptance, it's a cornerstone to our wellbeing. In hierarchies there's a real risk that if and when we challenge social norms, we risk social exclusion. To have psychological safety you need an environment were you are not punished for speaking up and contributing your ideas. She explains that people in psychologically safe teams are therefore more likely to contribute ideas, challenge established ways of thinking, engage and innovate. It's more than a nice to have, it really is the best way to get the best out of people.


Tim Grenfell, Chief Psychologist with the Australian Federal Police, highlights some additional important points including that as a norm based construct, it's a shared belief system. "Often it's confused with trust, and trust makes up a significant part of it but trust tends to be something that exists between two people ... safety is something that is shared across the entire team." He also explains how its different from a 'psychologically safe climate'.


The conversation also explores the linkages between psychological safety, wellbeing and mental health with the research increasingly showing that being socially accepted and part of a group is important, if not fundamental, sitting up there with sleep and exercise. People who are subject to bullying in the workplace are often excluded from social groups and we see the negative impact of that on wellbeing.


Tim points out that there is very high correlation between psychologically unsafe workplaces and individual mental health concerns "...we see a correlate with depression, with burnout, with low morale and distress generally." The balance between job demands and stressors and resources is another way of looking at this issue and a psychological unsafe workplace is a huge demand on any individual.


The conversation also traverses some examples of historical breakdowns of psychological safety and how team cohesion, and a culture of not being able to speak out, has disastrous consequences for both individuals and team performance. Tim explains that "as teams become unable to learn from mistakes because nobody is able to express their concerns we see a lack of innovation, because no one is able to risk moving away from what they see as the accepted position .. we see a lack of cohesion, a lack of civility, a lot of workplace conflict."


This takes up a lot of energy, attention and a focus on interpersonal dynamics.

In these unsafe environments, people are actually in a state of fear which leads to staff absences, presenteeism and a really significant loss of productivity. It impact on three levels, personally, for the team and for the entire organisation.


Leonie Graham CPHR, Director, People Support at IP Australia, points out that where an organisation is psychologically safe it allows for innovation which itself requires a diversity of thought and an appetite to take risks. "Where we have an environment of psychological safety, its an opportunity to amplify the individual, to give them the greater growth, to really stretch and try themselves out in different environments." This needs to be modelled from the top down. That's why they're also doing a significant amount of work around what inclusion looks like for their senior leadership and their middle management cohorts on inclusive leadership.


She explains that they've also done work on their risk framework to explain to staff where that risk sits so if you are coming in with new ideas, you have some idea of what the risk appetite is and where it sits.


The conversation also covers issues including

  • Making the right hiring decisions with an increasing emphasis on good people leadership skills and emotional intelligence and unconscious bias that might occur when promoting from within organisations

  • A shift in emphasis on the core training needed for leaders (including mental health literacy and interpersonal components).

  • How culture ebbs and flows, depending on the attention that is given to it, and

  • While leadership from the top is important, it also requires everyone to be committed to holding themselves accountable and how public declarations relating to how people and teams conduct themselves is important.

For those starting to think about psychological safety in the workplace, Rachel points out that it's not about "passively accepting everything that people want to do." It really occurs within established boundaries of work and performance expectations.


This is a critical point that is often forgotten. It's not just a feel good initiative and you really need very clearly defined values and behaviours and expectations in the team.


I hope you find the conversation informative. Let me know of any other topics you'd like me to explore?


Thanks to IP Australia for whom I initially created this recording.



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