The moment is still etched in my mind. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The lump in my throat. My opinion didn’t matter. My degree wasn’t good enough. My experience was irrelevant. Remember to breathe, I told myself.  

Let me set the scene… It was the afternoon of our weekly leadership meeting. The department heads were seated around the table waiting for our boss to begin. Small talk continued.

I was distracted as I looked over my notes one last time. One of the agenda items was focused on my department. I wanted to make sure I was ready. I felt confident in my ability to address the issues. I had successfully done so at a previous job. 

Per usual, we ticked through other agenda items. When time came for what I thought would be a discussion on the issues, our boss said, “I’ve decided we are moving forward on ____. Implementation will begin immediately.” No discussion? What had I missed? Immediately?

She moved to the next agenda item. It was clear discussion was not welcome. Given there were legal and ethical issues that would require cross-discipline training, I asked after the meeting how we would address them. She said, “You are a mid-level provider. Having a psychologist train physicians would be insulting to the physicians.” 

Huh? I had the same terminal degree level as my peers. How was I “mid-level”? My peers from different disciplines understandably had different professional training on ethical and legal matters, how would it be insulting? I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I was clear it was not safe to speak up. I may have lost my job. This is an example of not feeling psychologically safe. 

Psychological safety was identified by Amy Edmondson in 1999. It refers to having a sense of belonging, being able to speak up, ask for help, and offer ideas in the workplace without fear of interpersonal consequences. Google’s People Analytics team, through work on Project Aristotle, distinguished that psychological safety is a common factor shared by high performing teams. The presence of psychological safety in hospitals has demonstrated that encouraging employees to speak up when they notice potential problems saves lives by creating stronger infection control efforts (Greene et al., 2020).  

In the midst of COVID19, psychological safety is more essential now than ever before. Beyond the pandemic, we are navigating racial injustice, the Me Too movement, and economic insecurity. We are collectively anxious, exhausted, isolated, grieving, and afraid. We are worried about not meeting our basic needs and angry over inequity. We are working front-line jobs that put us at risk for getting sick. Our workplaces, without boundaries, are in our living rooms. 

As time elapses in the US, COVID-19 is getting worse. We are putting our children back in school. Life is uncertain and humans are not well-equipped to deal with uncertainty. When we don’t know what’s to come, we fill it in with “information” we make up. Unfortunately, this “information” is mostly unhelpful (e.g., “I can’t go anywhere”) and it creates more anxiety. 

When we feel overwhelmed it’s often referred to as being in our “lizard brain” (amygdala). In this primitive part of our brain we get warned about danger and go into fight, flight, or freeze modes. Our rational thinking declines and our thoughts become more rigid. 

Creating psychological safety helps employees move from the primitive brain to the more functional pre-frontal cortex where executive functioning occurs. Here, employees can focus, engage in complex planning, and make rational decisions. 

Here are a few tools for helping your team make this transition, remote or onsite:

  • Frequent communication from leaders. Share information as often as you have it. Rumors travel fast with social media so make sure your team hears from you first. Create a group of diverse, trusted colleagues who will review your messaging for clarity and effectiveness prior to release. Distribute the same information via multiple channels (e.g., video message, email, chat) to ensure timely access for everyone. Help everyone feel like they belong by sharing in languages that cover the workforce. 
  • Invest in Your Team. Prioritize relationships by scheduling weekly or bi-weekly check ins. Ask how they are doing and assess their needs. Connect with empathy by identifying and understanding their emotions. You’ll be better at this if you first take time to understand how you are feeling. 
  • Talk about mental health and psychological well-being. Offer training on how to recognize and respond to colleagues in distress. Realize that everyone’s reactions are different depending on their life circumstances and past mental health experiences. 
  • Bring significant issues to the team. Demonstrate confidence in your team and build trust by being transparent with information and sharing the real challenges ahead. Allow them to work on the problems. They may have the solutions you are seeking. Support ideas and appreciate everyone’s skills. Create a “no criticism” zone and have an award for the most far-fetched idea. 
  • Help all team members be heard. Identify ways to hear from those who take up less space (e.g., women and People of Color). Create a system of “everyone responds” or “turn taking” in meetings.

We all need to feel psychologically safe, especially in these unprecedented times.

Taking these steps will help everyone feel more connected and valued. 

Had I felt comfortable speaking up all those years ago and that my perspective was valued, we may have avoided breaches that occurred, saved time spent managing confusion, maintained relationships that were fractured, and secured a deeper level of trust among the team. 

We simply cannot afford the consequences of an unsafe environment right now. We need psychologically safe spaces to hold us. To let us know that we’re OK. These are the kinds of environments that lead to stronger and more resilient teams. 

Here’s to Increasing Psychological Safety, 

Danielle Oakley

Danielle Oakley, PhD is the CEO and Founder of Oakley & Associates Consulting. With more than 20 years’ experience, Danielle has leveraged mental health and psychological well-being as predictors of success by creating environments where individuals, teams, and organizations can thrive. As a consultant and coach, she inspires others to reach their fullest potentials and to invest in the potential of others. She is a member of the Association for Threat Assessment Professionals and is Co-editor for the Journal of College Student Psychotherapy.