Photo above by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

How do you know when you’re safe?

Physically, our bodies will know before our brains can explain it. That’s intuition kicking in.

For many, even when the coast is clear and we can let our guard down, we don’t. Because while it might be safe physically in the room, it’s not safe to be honest. The fears aren’t of earthquakes or wild animals or interruption, they’re deeper. Fears of being judged, ridiculed, triggered, or held hostage by our difference.

This is what I mean by the term ‘psychological safety’.

Are you safe to share? Are you safe to disagree? Are you safe to be wrong?

When you’re psychologically safe, you know that those in the room, no matter what you disagree on, want the best for you. They care about you.

They’re grounded enough that your questions don’t scare them.

They’re determined to be honest, curious and kind at the same time.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience this in a few different settings, and I remember how it made me feel.

I’ve felt safe at the dinner table of someone I’ve just met. I’ve felt safe in a Zoom room. I’ve felt safe hugging someone for the first time. I’ve felt safe when Toni, my counsellor, holds the silence for me. I’ve felt safe when hearing others tell the story of how I’d organised to speak at the Richmond Lions Club that evening, only to ring and find out that it wasn’t Richmond in Christchurch, but Richmond in Nelson…

The power lies in all of us to create this space for others. We don’t have to have the microphone or the title or even think of ourselves as a leader. It simply demands showing up. However, while we can learn to build our own resilience, psychological safety falls apart when those around us don’t agree to make the space safe as well.

I haven’t cracked the code on how this kind of team culture is built, but luckily, the Harvard Business Review have; there are five official traits. These are centred around conflict and while they’d probably work at Google, they don’t feel hugely relevant in this space.

So, I’ve made up my own, unofficial traits of psychological safety, as I’ve experienced it. Here’s what I need to feel safe.

  1. The ability to laugh at ourselves. Only when I show my quirks, admit my mistakes, and don’t take myself too seriously, can others see it’s safe to do so as well. Someone has to be first.
  2. Listen first. Stop waiting for my turn to talk. Put aside the point I’m trying to make. Stop interrupting. We all want to be known; seek to understand by listening.
  3. When frustration is tempted to creep in, I try to remember Cat Hoke’s quote: we can’t be angry and curious at the same time. Learning is more important that being right. Choose wisely.
  4. Be in the same room, often. It’s proximity and shared experiences that cultivate safety. The closer we are, the more we’re known, the safer our created culture can become.

We can learn how to make a space safe. We can practise making a space safe. This takes time and trust and buy-in from everyone. It also takes someone to take the first step.

And look. This is where friendship comes from. This is where innovation comes from. This is where vulnerability and being known comes from.

And yes, Harvard, I believe this is where “high-performing teams” come from.

Photo taken at the Terracotta Warriors Exhibition at Te Papa, 2019