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What Might Be Hurting Your Psychological Safety?

During a GovLoop webinar on psychological safety, we invited attendees to join the conversation and ask questions. We’re including some of those questions and responses from Mel Kepler, a Training Consultant at LMI who worked for 13 years at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Questions and answers were lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How can I foster a psychologically safe environment when no one listens to me?

Background: As an employee with the federal government, it would take a lot for my job to be at risk. That said, just because I can’t easily be fired for taking risks that doesn’t mean I can’t be “punished” in other ways — ignored, sidelined, or passed over. What can I do to advocate for myself in an environment that doesn’t feel psychologically safe when this is the case?

A: There are three main ways you can push psychological safety: as the person in charge who sets the tone (i.e., from a position of power), as a psychologically safe person, and as a part of the team that pushes those in power toward psychologically safe behaviors.

Please consider your own psychological safety, too. If your team is not psychologically safe, pushing back on those in power by saying, “I think we should hear Sandra out,” or “Why don’t we try a new way?” is risky. You’re right, there are lots of types of risk beyond losing your job. You know your situation best; if the cost of taking the risk is too high, then it is not worth it.

You can always be a psychologically safe person, however — an island in rough waters. You can show people that you value them and want them to contribute to your own work. If it is not safe for you personally to push that bubble of psychological safety beyond your own sphere of influence, that is OK. (It’s not OK in a larger sense because you should be able to feel safe, too! But it isn’t your personal fault.)

Q: How do you build psychological safety with colleagues working virtually? What if you’re a new employee?

A: Many of the behaviors are the same, though the mode is different. Introduce yourself when you meet someone new. Remember their name, including pronunciation, nicknames and pronouns. Turn on your camera if you can and look at their faces. Listen when they talk.

Beyond that, again, the behaviors are often similar but a bit harder with virtual life. Creating rituals might have been easier when you were all in person, but it’s possible virtually, too!

I had a team that ended all our calls by putting our hands toward the camera and going, “Ready, BREAK!” and throwing them into the air. You can add in inclusion and learning space by going “around the horn” before hanging up so that everyone gets to talk, and by being honest about your mistakes and forgiving of others.

Attendee observation: I see three levels to this.

There are coworkers with whom we really bond, there are some we may not have that personal connection with, and there are those who are difficult to deal with. The first two may provide different levels, but there is nothing unsafe. The last category becomes difficult, however.

Response: For known “problem people,” I think the first thing you can do is give yourself a mental break. After you get a chance to know them, when you are really looking at their work and behaviors and not someone else’s description of them, be honest with yourself. Is this person truly confused or left out or standoffish, or are they acting in bad faith? You cannot educate someone if they’ve chosen not to learn, and giving yourself permission not to try can be very freeing.

In these cases, instead, I would look for ways to be an oasis of psychological safety or to create a psychologically safe space around that person, if they cannot be removed. The most important part is that the “problem person” cannot be actively excluded or treated poorly. For example, if everyone is asked for input at the end of the meeting, you must ask them as well. But their unsafe behaviors can be curbed. Let’s say they take up airspace and don’t let others talk. You can actively interrupt and say, “Thanks – but we haven’t gotten to hear from Jimbo yet today.”

This article is an excerpt from our resource, “Psychological Safety in the Workplace: A GovLoop Toolkit.” Download the full toolkit here.

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