Don’t Overlook Psychological Safety

“We are not thinking machines that feel, rather we are feeling machines that think.”

~Antonio Damasio, USC Professor

Amid COVID-19, organizations have been diligently developing new workplace safety protocols. This includes screening workers who may have Covid-19 symptoms; social distancing; using face masks and sanitizing surfaces. This is to insure a physically safe environment for employees. But what do you do about psychological safety?

A recent Gallup poll found that 59% of workers would prefer to continue working from home. Among the reasons expressed were: preferring a flexible work schedule, eliminating commute time, working in a more relaxed environment, and spending more time with family. However, the international HR consulting firm Mercer reported that they had identified another reason, fear. Fear can be physical or emotional.

Mercer found that many workers fear catching or spreading COVID-19. In other words they feel psychologically unsafe about returning to the work place. Neuroscience tells us that the brain’s primary function is survival, and fear is experienced as a threat to our survival. So in addition to creating physical safety protocols perhaps the greater challenge for leaders is creating a psychologically safe workplace.

People are Feeling Beings Who Think

 Neuroscientists have concluded that psychological safety is as crucial as physical safety. It is invisible, often overlooked, but impacts how employees view their work environment and the effort they put forth. More than invisible, very few employees even talk about their fears at work.  Psychological Safety can be described as the belief that it is safe to take personal risks, speak openly, share ideas and even make mistakes without fear of being rejected, judged or ridiculed. In other words, psychological safety allows workers to feel respected and included as a valued part of the organization.  Let’s consider how this works.

The brain senses feeling psychologically unsafe as a threat to survival in less than a second. The Amygdala, a part of the Limbic (emotional) System, releases the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. This increases heart rate and blood sugar levels to provide more energy to the body in preparation for a fight or flight response (f3). In fact, the brain’s response to a threat is faster, easier to trigger, stronger and lasts longer than its reaction to a positive experience.  It is so powerful that it can override the brain’s Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), our executive thinking function, impacting our ability to think rationally, and be fully engaged in our work. Survival is the first job of our feeling brains; productive and creative work is secondary.

Leaders in the workplace can influence and lessen a shut-down response by directly impacting three components of Psychological Safety that are perceived in the workplace. The three components are Respect, Inclusion and Trust. Psychological Safety can be viewed as an equation: (R + I) x T = PS

Respect (focus on the individual)

Respect is valuing each person as being committed and competent by leaders and peers. Respect helps to build self-esteem, creates belief that each person has a valued place in the organization and that their efforts are appreciated.

Feeling disrespected is perceived as a threat and lowers the desire of an employee to collaborate with others. Workers who have experienced disrespect report that it negatively impacted their willingness to either challenge or enthusiastically support the work of their team or organization. The focus is on survival not productivity. On the other hand, when feeling respected the brain releases oxytocin and serotonin — the bonding hormones.   The result is increased focus and collaboration, which aid people in being productive workers. Building a culture of respect is a core opportunity for leaders to focus on to provide a psychologically safe work environment.

Inclusion (focus on the team)

Humans are social beings. We have a brain-based social need to belong and be included. For our ancestors, inclusion in the community was essential because it improved the prospects of survival. Exclusion obviously meant the opposite.

We have the same brain-based need for inclusion today. It’s a need to be a valued member of the organization and our work team. We seek inclusion at work because working collaboratively increases our effectiveness and survival as an employee. Like our ancestors our brain is on constant alert for threats to our survival in the environment, including where we work.  Neuroscience has determined that about 5 times per second the brain decides if what is being observed is a threat or safe in order to determine our behavior. Some research has concluded that as much as 70% of our conversations are social in nature. We want to discern: “What is the organization’s culture?  “How do I fit in?”  “What is safe behavior?”

Being excluded, even briefly, accesses the same region of the brain that registers physical pain. So being excluded is painful and short circuits our ability to be productive.  In fact, an fMRI study (a technique of measuring and mapping brain activity) showed that taking pain medication reduces the “pain” of rejection. Inclusion, on the other hand, releases dopamine, the feel good hormone, that increases our ability to bond with others, improves memory and productivity. People achieve better results when they connect and build relationships as a team. For example, in 2019 McKinsey & Company reported that “companies in the top quartile for inclusion on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.”

Trust (The Multiplier)

Respect without Trust is demoralizing. Inclusion without Trust is hollow. Trust is the multiplier.

The Harvard Business Review, in 2020, reports that companies with high trust report 76% higher engagement, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, and 25% higher worker satisfaction compared with low trust organizations. Unfortunately lack of trust seems to be experienced in many organizations. Gallup has found that only 33% of employees trust their organization’s leadership and Edelman reported that only 38% trusted that their leaders put people before profits. Low trust is experienced as a threat; therefore, the brain releases cortisol which narrows our perspective and triggers the defensive fight, flight or freeze response (f3).

A common misconception about trust is that it must be earned before being granted. Trust earned is transactional. This assumes that trust is dependent on a quid pro quo exchange of benefits, is tentative and must be continually renegotiated. Additionally, the criteria is often not defined or acknowledged that trust has been earned.

In reality, trust is active. Trust freely granted is transformational. It is extended to workers verbally and behaviorally by leaders. It goes beyond reciprocity and is based on a worker centric approach to leadership. Experiencing trust causes the brain to release oxytocin and serotonin which together reduce anxiety and increases a sense of safety (Harvard Business Review Jan – Feb 2017). This increases our willingness to collaborate, our ability to learn, problem solve and innovate. For trust to be the multiplier it must be demonstrated first by leaders.

The Bottom Line

Psychological Safety has implications for every aspect of organizational life. As Amy Edmondson points out: “Psychologically safe employees are more interested in learning, excellence, and genuinely connecting with others…” This is especially true for workers returning to the workplace. As you lead in this effort, try to respect the individual challenges workers will face in returning to work. Work to build an inclusive team approach and demonstrate openness, transparency and understanding that can build trust as your organization plans for a return to the workplace. The result will be a smoother and more productive transition because we are feeling beings who think.

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Dr. Woodside a Senior Consultant at The Luminous Group, LLC (ken@luminousgroup.com).

Sources

  • Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization, 2019, John Wiley & Sons
  • Paul Zak, Harvard Business Review, January – February 2017 issue
  • Gallup WORKPLACE JUNE 13, 2019
  • Gallup Survey, April and June 2020
  • 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, Spring Update
  • CBS News poll [“Chief Executive”’ 4/28/2020]
  • Lean Enterprise Institute
  • Google’s study Project Aristotle.
  • RIS model – De Cremer, D., & Tyler, T. R. (2005a). Am I respected or not? Inclusion and reputation as issues in group membership. Social Justice Research, 18, 121-152.
  • Kipling D. Williams, Purdue University (Exclusion and pain)
  • Scientific American, July 16, 2013, The Neuroscience of Everybody’s Favorite Topic, Adrian F. Ward July 16, 2013
  • Psychology Today, May 16, 2019, The Neuroscience of Conversations, Nicklas Balboa and Richard D. Glaser, Ph.D.