Creating Safe Spaces

This morning I was helping to facilitate a session with a client on the subject of Psychological Safety. This has become a hot topic in organisations since 2015 when Google conducted research into what creates high performing teams. There is number 1 finding – it was this culture where people feel safe to speak up, share views openly, challenge each other without fear of repercussions. It’s a place where people feel empowered to show up as they are.

One of the pre-eminent advocates of Psychological safety is Amy Edmondson who defines it as “…a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistake”

Research shows that this is, unfortunately surprisingly rare. As many as 85% of people in the workplace have said they have not felt able to raise concerns with their line manager at least once, even though the issue was seen as important or consequential (Milliken, Morrison, & Hewlin (2012).

This got me to thinking about the current world and way of working that we are all dealing with. When operating remotely it is even easier than ever for people to avoid discussions that might feel uncomfortable. There feels less onus on us to speak up due to a lack of physical closeness. In fact, we know that our sense of belonging is diminishing the more we work remotely. People are feeling less connected to their organisations.

When we go to a workplace we are surrounded by visual cues that remind us of being part of something. The uniform we might wear, the logo we see on the walls, the company colour palette, even the mugs we have our cuppa’s from can all be strong symbols of belonging. This is without the value of informal social interaction that we know is super important and has a massive impact on workers sense of being part of something.

Why Belonging?

You might be asking why belonging matters when this piece is about psychological safety? Well, we know that when people a stronger sense of connection or belonging with others they are more likely to feel “safe” and part of that group. This then facilitates trust that underpins psychological safety. I would argue that it is impossible to feel psychologically safe if I do not first feel like I belong.

In recent research shared on Linked In there were 4 key factors that helped people to have a sense of belonging

These were:

  1. Being recognised for my accomplishments (personal and individual rather than blanket sentiments)
  2. Having opportunities to express my opinions freely (one of the core elements of psychological safety)
  3. Feeling that my contributions to the team are valued and appreciated – that what I do matters
  4. I can feel comfortable being myself whilst in the workplace – I can show up as me and take off the mask.

At Mindset Leadership we talk about a very simple model based on the core psychological drivers we all have as humans. In order for us to feel a sense if connection we need the following:

Attention –  we want to feel like we are seen. We want to fee that others notice us and that we are recognised. We might not want constant attention (the horror that is micromanagement) yet we do want to feel like that at key moments we are able to grab the attention of those whose opinions matter to us.

Important – beyond feeling like we are seen we also want to know we are heard. When we share information, we want those around us to demonstrate that they have listened, and considered what we have said. That our opinions or ideas count. That we are consequential. We can I am sure all remember back to our childhood when we used to hear the phrase “children are to be seen not heard”. How frustrating is that?

Matter – finally we all have a drive to feel like we matter – that there is meaning in what we do. That we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves ad that the work we are doing has purpose to it. Again, imagine the feeling of knowing you are slaving over a report that no-one is ever going to read.

These 3 areas are why the so-called “vanity” measures on social media are so addictive – they give us a sense of grabbing attention, feel like we are saying something of value and indeed like what we do is valuable to others.

Creating safe spaces

Move this now into the present moment where many of have been forced to work from home for coming up to 18 months. As we sit and wait to hear what might happen on 21st June many will be rejoicing at the chance to return to the office for a few days a week, whilst some will be dreading it.

How do we create safe spaces for our teams to come back to? There is the obvious physical safety element – will we be socially distancing, will people be rigorous in personal hand cleansing, will work surfaces we sanitised daily. Let alone the use of public transport to commute to / from the office – what will this feel like as the trains get busier.

Yet beyond this physical safety concern there is also the concern of how we create psychological safety where some people will be extremely anxious and really not want to be present in person much of the time.

We know from the research that psychological safety can’t be forced or commanded – it has to be built step by step. It can also be broken with an ill-advised comment or a reaction when our team openly express their concerns.

The next few weeks are going to really challenge us all as leaders. We are going to need to show empathy, care and above all strive to create belonging between teams who are unlikely to all be working in the same way. The hybrid model will challenge all of our thoughts on what it is like to work and what we understand by workplaces.

Are you ready for the challenge?

If you would like to talk to us about how you navigate belonging and safety moving forward please email me at

Image source :  David Vinuales

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