Do you feel safe speaking up in your team? Can you voice an unpopular opinion without fear of your colleague’s rebuttal? Will you disagree with your boss knowing that they will value, or at least tolerate your divergent thinking? If you can say “yes” to those questions, then you know what it feels like to have psychological safety.
But if you couldn’t confidently agree with those questions, then you are among the throngs of people who feel psychologically unsafe at work. Your brain is telling you to be on guard, to protect yourself. It’s good to have a brain that keeps you safe. And still, your brain isn’t infallible. It can be a little over-the-top sometimes. So, before you buy what your brain is passing off as fear, interrogate those feelings. Is the fear real? Is it justified? Is it serving you?
Here’s my take on what really is a question of psychological safety and what isn’t.
Fear of Harmful Outcomes
It’s possible that you have direct evidence that people who disagree or rock the boat will be punished. If you have examples to show that speaking up might cause you to be yelled at, removed from a project, rated poorly, denied opportunities, or terminated, it makes sense for you to be afraid and therefore to be silent. This is a time when your brain is warning you and you should listen. You have legitimate cause to feel unsafe. The answer in this situation is to seek help from HR and to seek support from peers or leaders with whom you feel comfortable.
While these situations are very serious, I don’t believe they’re all that common.
Fear of Aversive Outcomes
In most situations, if you add a contrary point of view or disagree with the prevailing wisdom on the team, you’re unlikely to be rated poorly or fired. What might happen is that you might be met with counterarguments, you might have the veracity and validity of your information challenged or face a barrage of questions. If you feel unsafe because your ideas might be tested, you might be asked to do additional work, you might have to give up a long-held belief, I encourage you to reframe that as feeling uncomfortable, rather than unsafe. The answer in this situation is to work on your skills to be able to work with constructive criticism and productive conflict so that over time it becomes less frightening to you.
Not Safe from Yourself
There’s one final possibility I’d like to mention. I work with some individuals who feel psychologically unsafe when I can see no objective explanation for their feelings. I watch their managers listen actively and respond in ways that demonstrate they value the diversity of thought. I see their colleagues being responsive and taking the information on board. I don’t see anything that could be classified as uncomfortable being thrown at them. Yet, the fear persists. If you feel unsafe because you believe your team will stop liking you if you don’t go along with them, you won’t make your point perfectly eloquently, or you’re worried about looking less smart than your colleagues, you have a confidence problem, an imposter syndrome problem, not a safety problem. The answer in this situation is not to blame your boss or your colleagues or pin your fear on others. The answer is to seek out reflection, coaching, and perhaps therapy.
Psychological safety is becoming a very popular topic, with good reason. When you don’t feel psychologically safe, you’re unlikely to contribute fully, you won’t throw out creative ideas that spark innovation, you might hesitate to point out issues or concerns that mitigate risk, you won’t sleep well at night. While psychological safety is critical to all of these important obligations, I’m not convinced that it’s the sole responsibility of the organization or the manager to create it. Reflect on how much of your own psychological safety (or lack thereof) you own. How could parsing the parts of your fear that are more generalized anxiety about feeling uncomfortable or unsure help you be happier, healthier, and more productive?