Psychological Safety is Not an Absence of Fear
Fear is everywhere. Everyone has fear.
Fear is the safety mechanism that wakes us up from habitual behaviours and tells us to pay attention to what is happening right now. The greater the risk or pressure in a situation, the more fear is a natural and appropriate response.
Psychological safety is what allows individuals and organizations to learn and develop in the presence of fear.
Fear is Not the Enemy
To get rid of fear is to become reckless.
We want to collaborate with our fear, recognizing its value as the human warning system.
Every organization has some process for risk analysis. So does every person.
The human risk assessment system has a fast part and a slow part.The fast part happens unconsciously. The slow one involves conscious thought.
Like a smoke alarm that goes off when we burn food while cooking, a healthy risk assessment system errs on the side of making us pay attention to things that aren’t in fact dangerous. Psychological safety slows us down and allows conscious thought so we can recognize false alarms.
Fear is a warning signal built out of biological sensors and processors and shaped through experiential learning. It is a deeply imperfect system at the best of times, but it is the best we have. Like an overprotective parent, fear means well and can learn to relax.
Fast fear is crucial when the danger is real and immediate. Without conscious thought, our bodies assesses the danger, decide whether to fight, run, freeze, or appease, and take action. With a poorly calibrated system or unskillful reactions, however, we often make mistakes. We can train so we have better reactions.
The first step is to train your eye to recognize fear in action.
What does it look like when you fight, run, freeze, or appease?
What do your team members do that might be their versions of fight, run, freeze, or appease?
The goal is to feel the fear and choose how to react.
In teams, fear can present in several forms. The most common are:
Resistance to change
Lack of focus
A pattern of regretting past decisions
Blaming management or other teams for delivery problems
Sometimes one person becomes the voice of a team’s fear. When this happens, it is easy to think that the person is a problem and miss the systemic issue. This is most likely to happen if one person on the team has a more sensitive risk assessment system than the rest of the team or if other members of the team are projecting their fear onto the person who is least uncomfortable with fear.
Just like individual fear needs to be welcomed as a messenger, team fear must be recognized as an asset.
Think about how your team as a whole behaves under pressure.
What are the team versions of fight, run, freeze, or appease?
Start with Observation and Curiosity
Don’t be in a hurry to make change. Change creates fear. Imposed change creates more fear.
You will have a surprisingly large impact on yourself and your team if all you do is observe the fear with curiosity.
What are my physiological responses to fear?
How do I behave when I am acting out of fear?
What behaviours that I observe on my team could be responses to fear?
What evidence is my body using to assess risk?
What evidence do my team members seem to be unconsciously using to assess risk?
What circumstances provoke fear responses on my team?
The first step in creating psychological safety is turning towards fear.
For many of us, this is very difficult.
Do what you can. It gets easier with practice.
For more about fast thinking and slow thinking, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a good place to start.