Is feeling safe at work really going to drive performance?

17 May 2023

Psychological safety is a feeling of trust; a belief that if you speak up in the workplace – say what you think or say what you are feeling – there will not be a negative outcome or repercussion for you.

Managers play a key role in making us feel safe or making us feel unsafe at work. Regardless of the organisation’s culture, they set the micro-climate in which their direct reports operate.

Importantly though, psychological safety does not mean employees feeling comfortable all the time, and in my experience advising companies on matters of culture and behaviour, I’ve seen managers often confusing the two. The paradox of psychological safety is that we need to have some degree of anxiety in order to get things done.

The paradox

On the one hand we know from research that worry and anxiety correlate negatively with job performance. This is consistent across studies. Similarly, more anxious leaders tend to over-control, leading to disengagement and anxiety for their teams, which in the longer term impacts negatively on performance and productivity.

However, creating psychological safety is not about creating a zero anxiety environment, even if that were possible. Adults will only change their behaviour or engage positively with getting a task done when they experience a personal dissonance between how things are now and how they would like them to be. We need this conflict and dissonance between the ‘as is’ and the ‘to be’ – effectively this anxiety about a future state – in order to drive positive change.

The psychology

In understanding psychological safety at work then, we need to understand emotions and how our human brains are wired. In response to any external stimulus, the emotional (limbic) part of our brain is the first to respond, before we think or act. The challenge around this is that in response to a negative stimulus, our brains release hormones and chemicals which inhibit the functioning of the rational part of our brain. In a state of high negative emotion, it’s very difficult to look at a problem objectively and we are less likely to remember crucial data, think logically, explain coherently, make the most effective decisions or deal with organisational risks. In short, where negative emotion prevails, our performance dips.

The reverse is true of ‘rewards’ which generate positive emotion and the release of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin which serve to calm our limbic system and ensure the logical and rational part of our brain is firing on all cylinders.

The workplace

People feel unsafe in the workplace for a variety of reasons. Our brains are wired for fight-flight or fright and we scan our environment for threat, real or perceived, constantly, taking cognitive shortcuts to process what we process from the world, according to patterns we’ve developed in the past. If I am sitting in a meeting room talking calmly with colleagues and someone comes bolting into the room unannounced, our natural threat mechanisms will fire off, our fear will be momentarily aroused, we will assume the worst (it is often a crisis that drives this sort of behaviour), at least for a few seconds until the unannounced visitor explains themselves.

David Rock defines five workplace threats using the acronym SCARF – Status (the threat or fear of losing it), a threat to Certainty (not knowing what is going to happen), loss of Autonomy (our ability to problem solve and take ownership within our roles), relatedness (threat to lack of harmony in our relationships) and fairness (the perception that some are being treated more favourably than others for no good reason). These are all threats we can recognise being aroused in ourselves and others.

The leader’s role

So if it’s normal to have emotions and its normal for our brains to be scanning our environment for threats, here’s where the manager comes in. Conscious effort can be made to create the conditions that harness positive emotion in our workforce, and by this I mean actions that go beyond providing opportunities for social engagement.

Creating psychological safety does not mean stamping out emotion or anxiety. People need to know what’s expected and to feel some level of raised emotion (anxiety) to achieve, and this is particularly true if they are not performing. However, it’s about the way we support our teams to achieve and improve, how we create ‘reward’ conditions. Actions such as providing praise and recognition, setting clear expectation, being ethical and fair around decisions, giving honest feedback, all go a long way to alleviating the anxiety around those tricky conversations.

So rather than focusing on psychological safety as cosy or happy, let’s focus on the business at hand but in a way that is attentive to harnessing positive emotions in our people as a driver of wellbeing.

Interested in learning more about how you can create psychological safely at your workplace? Get in touch with our leadership consulting team.

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