18.01.21

The “Scared to Speak Up” quandary

This willingness to take interpersonal risks at work, whether to admit error, ask a question, seek help, or simply say “I don’t know,” is part of what organizational psychologists refer to as “psychological safety” (Rosenbaum, 2019).

In 2019, Lisa Rosenbaum unpacked how to build a culture of psychological safety, and she looked at the barriers to psychological safety (the example was in a hospital environment). In short, Rosenbaum looked at what teams and leaders do, and how they behave … that has an adverse impact on their teammates, and on the productivity of the team. The key message is that; you will never create a high performing team if you have low levels of psychological safety. The barriers that were identified, as well as how you could address these from a leadership perspective, are as follows:

Antagonism

Antagonism relates to being openly rude, dismissive or hostile during interpersonal interactions. If you have a culture of antagonism in your team, or your organisation, the norm becomes treating people with disdain. And it creates psychological harm. It hurts other team members. The challenge is that caring communication takes time, it takes effort, and it takes a real willingness to want to build relationships (at every opportunity), not break them (in an instant).

In our own organisation, we talk about doing ‘No Harm’. And by that, we refer to avoiding the three A’s of harmful communication (add antagonism and you have four). Any team that allows aggression, abruptness or abusive behaviour to become the norm, rather than the exception, will soon find that team members are not only hurt, but they will leave in droves. The three A’s cause harm, they cause hurt and they cause a hindering of all things that comes with being a great team and being a great team member. And a great leader …

Collaboration

Without a culture of psychological safety, collaboration won’t happen. Team members won’t share their ideas and opinions, is they feel that they will come up against resentment, retaliation, or ridicule from others. It would be one of the most common things that we hear from our clients that ‘they are not willing to contribute to group sessions’, due to the fear or repercussion.

Leaders that can actively listen, who are able to take the word ‘no’ out of their vocabulary (because it shuts down and stifles conversation), and who are able to use their influencing skills to bring out the best in others will create engaged team members.

The curse of knowledge

“A feature of the human mind: (is that) when we know something, it’s difficult to recognize that someone else doesn’t. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the curse of knowledge” (Rosenbaum, 2019). Leaders and team members can get caught in the trap of expecting others to know what they do. And, becoming patient when others don’t.

Empathetic leaders are aware that others don’t have their knowledge base, and they don’t make people fell silly because of that. They are patient, they are understanding, and they take time to ensure that team members are not upset because they are not aware of a detail that others are.

In short, to foster collaboration, improve psychological safety. To foster contribution, improve psychological safety. And to foster challenging the norm … you guessed it … improve psychological safety.


Anton Guinea is the safety leadership expert. His journey is unique, having survived a workplace incident which he transformed from a cautionary story into powerful, psychology-based safety programs that has moved the hearts and minds of organisations globally. 

For 15 years, Anton has worked with over 150+ businesses and their leaders, to help make safety safe; safe to talk about, to engage in, and to report about. Working in the space of where Safety meets Leadership, Anton founded The Guinea Group as the safety support network to help businesses to LEADsafe365.

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