Photo by Chris Lawton

Psychological safety in the team

Do you feel safe to be yourself in your team? Is it okay to ask 'stupid' questions? Are you being taken seriously? Do you feel accepted and respected? Let's dive into the topic of psychological safety.

I decided to write this blog post when I watched the talk by John le Drew: Swearing, Nudity and other Vulnerable Positions. It is a talk about psychological safety and how it effects the efficiency of a team and the well-being of its members.

I attended this talk before, during the Dutch PHP Conference in June 2017, and it resonated with me because a safe atmosphere is something I find very important. I also recognize that it takes mindfulness, awareness of our own inner world, to help build such a safe atmosphere. Insecurities, power struggles, unfulfilled desires, all of these can play a role in behaviour that makes the workplace unsafe.

Let’s have a look for instance at feelings of superiority or inferiority. We all experience these feelings now and then. If we have suppressed our insecurity, our vulnerability, it can feel very important for us to be better than others. Our superiority can keep us ‘safe’, but… at the cost of making another person feel inferior and thus unsafe. Competition can feel healthy when we all feel secure enough, but it can also escalate into an ego power struggle, which is rather destructive. However, when we tend to feel inferior rather than superior, we can unknowingly trigger dominant behavior in someone else. It is helpful to be mindful of these patterns so that we can at least see what is going on, and maybe even stop ourselves from acting in ways we will come to regret.

Gossiping is another kind of behaviour that can make the workplace feel unsafe. When we talk negatively about another person we might feel better about ourselves for a short moment. But this security is fake. Deep down we will still feel insecure, while harming the relationship with other people and contributing to an unsafe environment.

As for the unfulfilled desires, as human beings we all need emotional intimacy. Women can share this need with their female friends. But unfortunately in our culture men are discouraged to share emotional intimacy with other men. When they then seek that intimacy with women however, this can potentially be confused with romance and sex and can lead to inappropriate behaviour. Being aware of unfulfilled needs and desires will help in respecting other people’s boundaries and keeping the atmosphere safe and professional.

What if we are a witness to behaviour that might cause people to feel unsafe? First of all, what causes one person to feel unsafe, may not feel like that to another person. There is a large grey area where it is not always clear what is going on or how to interpret things. But what we can observe are our own thoughts and emotions. How does the situation make us feel? Are we uncomfortable with what is going on? And if so, do we dare to speak up? If someone makes a joke that we find inappropriate, or if we feel that somebody is overlooked or not taken seriously, will we say something? Or do we keep silent out of fear of being rejected?

Don’t judge yourself for your feelings. Observe and explore, and see if next time you can make another choice. One that will contribute to a safe atmosphere.

We all play a part in building a safe environment. Sometimes we will notice destructive, dark parts within us that are trying to come to the surface. Other times, we will be challenged to firmly state our boundaries. Because that too is a responsibility that we have. When we cultivate our mindfulness, it will be much easier to deal with all of this, and to choose our actions wisely.

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