Srabani Sen: "Getting practical about psychological safety"

Srabani Sen, CEO and founder of full colour discusses safe spaces.

I recently wrote a LinkedIn post about so-called “safe spaces”. I said something like: simply declaring a space safe does not make it so”. Someone replied: “this would make a great slogan for a tee-shirt!” Setting aside the potential for a lucrative side hustle, I was not surprised by how many people with whom the post resonated.

How many people have you come across who rock up to a meeting about a difficult topic, declare it is a “safe space”, oblivious to the fact that their own habitual behaviour makes people feel unsafe, whether intentionally or unintentionally?

Feeling safe relies on trust. Trust takes time to build and is dependent on those declaring “safe spaces” regularly “showing up” in open and positive ways. Full Colour’s definition of psychological safety in organisational settings is made up of three parts:

• Feeling able to share views that might be different from other people’s, secure in the knowledge that you won’t be judged or treated unfavourable for having shared those views.

• Feeling secure enough to be curious about views and people who differ from you.

• Knowing how to share your own views in ways that are respectful of those who disagree

Often, we go into meetings assuming this is how everyone will operate. These assumptions are often untrue. The assumptions themselves can undo the best of intentions, corroding trust by creating a clash of expectations between colleagues that no-one dare voice.

Leaders and managers have a particular role to play in actively creating psychological safety. Importantly, they need to start with self-awareness. Leaders and managers can begin by
asking themselves three questions.

1. How do my regular actions and behaviours affect how people around me feel? Do you find it hard to mask your irritation when things go wrong or people make a mistake? How do you manage stress, and how is your stress visible to those around you? When you are in supervision sessions or meetings are you truly listening deeply or is your mind wandering (Others will be able to tell…) How and when do you offer praise? Do you complain about people or managers in other teams in front of your line reports? Do you acknowledge other people’s contributions to your successes? Do you make time to get to know your team as people?

2. What impact is my presence having on those around me (and if I don’t know, how can I find out)? Do people actively contribute to conversations you are part of, or do you have to draw them out? What is the balance of airtime between you and others who speak in
meetings? Is there always someone who is quiet or says little? What is the body language of those around you, and what clues does that give you to how authentic they feel able to be in your presence? (Overly positive body language is as telling as closed off body language…) What is your actual and perceived power, and how might that affect how psychologically safe people feel with you?

3. How am I planning and setting up the spaces I am responsible for? What am I doing to set up expectations of how a meeting should be conducted? How am I finding out about other people’s expectations on this? What am I doing to ensure everyone can contribute their best at meetings? How am I signalling that offering challenge is welcome? When colleagues offer challenges am I responding with curiosity? How am I encouraging others to respond with curiosity to views that differ from theirs?

If you want to create more psychological safety, there are lots of things to think about, but self-awareness is a great place to start. And if there is one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: please don’t start a meeting with “this is a safe space.”

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