Is psychological safety just "safetyism" in disguise?
Maybe you’ve been thinking, “I don’t have time to worry about psychological safety, isn’t that part of the ridiculous cultural obsession with trigger warnings?”
Well, I appreciate where you’re coming from, but to put it succinctly. No. “Psychological safety,” a term first coined by Dr. Amy Edmonson and extensively discussed in her book, The Fearless Organization, is very different from what has been termed “Safetyism” by Dr. Jonathan Haight and Greg Lukianoff in their thought-provoking book, The Coddling of the American Mind.
At the risk of grossly overgeneralizing the idea, safetyism reflects a societal response to trauma and uncertainty characterized by efforts to remove emotional distress and discomfort from everyday experiences. Safetyism is also characterized by cognitive distortions that promote catastrophic fears, rigid and concrete thinking, and the vilification of people or ideas that challenge the perceived right to freedom from emotional distress.
This can lead to workplace challenges such as employees who cannot tolerate the discomfort of giving or receiving feedback, individuals who appear to be hypersensitive to criticism or correction, a lack of creative problem-solving due to team members’ hyperfocus on how others perceive them, and rigid processes that are unable to tolerate necessary risk-taking that is necessary for innovation.
Of course, safetyism wasn't created in a vacuum.
Daily social media and real-world exposure to race and gender-based harassment and violence in schools, hospitals, and daily life sensitize us to threats.
Safetyism may be an understandable reaction to perceived threats, but unfortunately, it also operates in a manner inconsistent with psychological health and well-being. To be healthy and fully recover from the impacts of trauma and threat, people must learn how to tolerate the uncomfortable physical sensations and situations that remind them of past traumas.
Is this easy to learn? No. Is this comfortable? No. But is this necessary to live a full, happy, and resilient life? Yes.
So how does all of this relate to psychological safety?
Psychological safety is an interpersonal process representing a shared belief that individuals will not be shamed for contributing their ideas or acknowledging their mistakes.
Psychologically safe environments are characterized by direct and honest communication, respectful and non-shaming processes to address mistakes, and efforts to reduce interpersonal power differentials or hierarchy. Psychologically safer environments are also physically safer environments.
When psychological safety is present, mistakes can be acknowledged and addressed. Individuals with less power can speak up. Necessary questions are asked. Faulty processes can be examined.
In contrast to safetyism, psychological safety is not about avoiding uncomfortable experiences, personal responsibility, or painful feedback. Psychological safety requires substantial distress tolerance and a willingness to sit with discomfort in a mindful and non-reactive manner.
As my conversation with Dr. Lucy Houghton illustrates, psychological safety requires courageous leaders. Leaders must model psychologically safe behaviors and interpersonal patterns to build an environment that promotes psychological safety.
12 strategies to promote psychological safety as a leader:
Ask every team member to write down a concern or innovative idea on a card and have the whole team share their ideas simultaneously.
Use empathy and perspective-taking to look at a situation or idea from multiple perspectives.
Model a willingness to tolerate difficult feedback and unpleasant information.
Provide time and space for your team to discuss their response to uncomfortable feedback or experiences.
Trust that your team members have the expertise to do their jobs without attempting to micromanage.
Directly address problematic interpersonal processes or mistakes (e.g., “the elephant in the room”) in a non-judgmental and non-shaming manner.
Ask for and listen to critical feedback, even when you disagree with what you hear.
Provide feedback in a clear, direct, and behaviorally specific manner.
Reinforce team members who are brave enough to give direct feedback.
Don’t try to control others by being “nice.” Instead, focus on taking personal responsibility for managing your emotional response to difficult situations.
When your team invites you into a painful or emotionally charged conversation, breathe, and enter the conversation with curiosity.
Model courage by speaking up for your team and speaking truth to power.