Episode 81

How to Create Psychological Safety

Published on: 28th August, 2023

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In this episode...

How to Create Psychological Safety



[00:04] - Intro

[00:31] - If you had a good experience learning to ride a bike with supportive parents, you have experienced psychological safety and understand it. Psychological safety can be defined as the feeling that you can learn, make an effort, and be yourself without being humiliated or unable to recover if you present ideas or concerns.

[01:24] - Neurologically, psychological safety means you’re set up so you don’t go into fight-flight-freeze.

[01:51] - Considering the neurology related to psychological safety, when you don’t have psychological safety, it can become hard to focus, make good decisions or engage well in relationships.

[03:00] - Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmonson proposed three key things people can do to create psychological safety in teams: 1) Frame the work as a learning problem. 2) Acknowledge your own fallibility. 3) Model curiosity and ask plenty of questions.

[5:43] - Distilling Edmonson’s recommendations, making people feel safe is about building trust. But everyone is different regarding what they need to start trusting. So there’s no one way to approach building psychological safety. You just have to spend time with people and figure them out.

[07:09] - Trust requires integrity, which allows for the consistency people need to feel like you’re stable enough to approach.

[08:07] - Trust also requires empathy.

[09:00] - Psalm 91:4 is a wonderful demonstration of the psychologically and physically safe environment God is willing to provide. Moses compares God to a hen who gathers her chicks under her. If you watch chicks, you will see that they will scurry back under the mother’s wings as she moves. They know the consistency of her safety and trust it.

[11:09] - Challenge yourself by asking yourself what you can do to gather others under you, or conversely, what you need to trust them and go under their wings.

[11:48] - Creating psychological safety is critical as Christians because it connects to our ability to draw people to God. If people do not feel safe, they will not experience God as safe and, as a result, will not hear us. Speak up about what you need and about any problems you see.

[13:40] - Prayer

[14:18] - Outro/What’s coming up next

Key takeaways:

  • Most people can relate to the sense of psychological safety in the memory of learning to ride a bike. Psychological safety is the feeling or mental awareness that, despite some risks, nothing seriously bad will befall you. You will not be humiliated or unable to recover.
  • From the neurological perspective, psychological safety means that you are in an environment or circumstance that doesn’t activate your sympathetic nervous system and the fight-flight-freeze response. This response can shut down the cognitive areas of the brain, activate your emotional reasoning, and make it hard to be productive or connect to others.
  • Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmonson first connected the idea of psychological safety to teams. She came up with statements that can clue people in about how psychologically safe they or others feel, and she recommended three ways to create psychological safety: Frame the work as a learning problem rather than an execution problem, acknowledge your own fallibility, and model curiosity and ask questions.
  • Psychological safety, on a basic level, is about building trust. But what it takes to build trust will be different from person to person.
  • Creating trust to build psychological safety requires both integrity, which permits consistency, and empathy, which involves understanding and validating each other.
  • Psalm 91:4 and Matthew 23:37 both use the image of a hen protecting her chicks. This image portrays God as someone who is capable of providing both physical and psychological safety. Little chicks who learn to trust in the hen will run back under her wings. In the same way, we can learn to trust and come back to God when we need protection or a sense that everything is OK.
  • Ask yourself what you can do to gather others under your wings. Conversely, ask what you need from others to feel like you could take shelter under them.
  • Psychological safety is important in being able to serve and represent God. If you want to serve him well in the office or your church, be proactive about building it. Speak up when you see something amiss, both for yourself and others.

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Welcome, welcome, welcome, listeners. I’m your host, Wanda Thibodeaux, and this is Faithful on the Clock, where every pickle on the burger is carefully placed to get your faith and work aligned. Today we’re covering what I think is a pretty big topic, which is psychological safety. I’m gonna take a look at what it takes to create it in the workplace and why it matters from a couple of different angles. So here we go.


So to start off today, I want you to just sit back a moment. And I want you to think of a moment in your life, you know, maybe when you were a kid. Maybe you’re learning how to ride a bike or something like that, and maybe your mom and dad are there encouraging you, and you’re a little scared, but you still give the bike a shot because you trust your mom and dad. And I use this example because I think it’s one most people can relate to. But if you’ve had this experience, you’ve experienced psychological safety. And to just define that, psychological safety is just this feeling or mental awareness that even though there might be a certain amount of risk, you know, maybe you fall off the bike once or twice, nothing is going to seriously threaten you. You feel like it’s OK to make an effort and learn and be yourself, and that you won’t be humiliated or unable to recover if you try or present ideas or concerns.


Now, from the neurological perspective, if you wanna look at it that way, psychological safety means that you’re experiencing your circumstances or environment in such a way that your sympathetic nervous system doesn’t elevate into the fight-flight-freeze response. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect necessarily. It just means that you have the sense that whatever threats you do perceive aren’t gonna be the end of the world, that you can get past them.


So I give that neurological explanation because it’s really the foundation of why creating psychological safety matters in an office, or you know, even for yourself at home if you freelance. When your sympathetic nervous system gets activated, what ends up happening is the parts of the brain that are responsible for your cognitive functions, and we’re talking mainly your prefrontal cortex here, those kind of go offline. And you start processing in the limbic area of the brain, which is focused mainly on your emotional processing. So your decisions become, not necessarily bad, per se, but they’re more based in how you feel, and it becomes really hard to focus on what you’re doing. And at the same time, because you’re perceiving a threat of some kind, your mind becomes preoccupied with how to resolve that. And part of that, you know, it can show up as you avoiding people who are making you feel bad, you don’t speak up or ask questions when you should, or maybe you’re having conversations with them where you lash out to protect yourself. So if you want to sum it up, if you don’t have good psychological safety, it really hits you twice. It hits you in your productivity, but it also hits you in the relationships you have.


So understanding this, the question, especially as leaders and workers alike really are offering more support for mental health, the question is how to create a better sense of psychological safety. And we can look at that through some statements that were proposed by Amy Edmonson of Harvard. And Edmonson, she’s the organizational behavioral scientist who really proposed this concept of psychological safety around teams. So I’ll leave a link to those questions for you in the show notes, but just to give you a sense of what she was talking about, she asked things like, “Are members of the team able to bring up tough problems and issues?” and “When I’m working with the people on my team, do they value and utilize my unique skills and talents?” And Edmonson gave a Tedx talk where she suggested that people do three things to foster psychological safety. And the first thing was to frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. And what she meant was that, you know, nobody can predict the future. And maybe you’re in a spot in the project or the business where you’ve never been. But to solve that, you have to have everyone contributing and participating. But that mindset allows you to give people a clear rationale for being open and present it as a good or positive thing. You know, you can tell people, “We’re gonna embrace you taking action or giving us your concepts because it’s gonna get us through this problem of uncertainty that we have.” The second was to acknowledge your own fallibility. And that was based I think on this idea that people really do like to help other people. It lets them volunteer what they can do or know, and at the same time, they can make things a little better along the way. And if you admit to other people, you know, I can’t do it all by myself, I’ve got flaws and I’m going to mess up here and there, it helps people understand not only that they can contribute, but that they don’t have to keep up this facade of perfection, which I think is really stressful. You know, you get this modeling going on that communicates that people don’t have to be so worried about keeping up appearances. And then lastly, model curiosity and ask plenty of questions. And for this one, I’ll just say, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like to talk about themselves a little bit, right? We all do. We all want to share. That’s a basic desire and need we have. And when you ask questions, when you’re curious, what you’re really doing in a positive way is manipulating them to reveal themselves. You’re showing interest and confirming that their thoughts or experiences matter. So that builds people up. It makes them want to then express other things to you because they’ve had a positive experience sharing with you in the past.


So if you look at Edmonson’s three suggestions and want to distill them to one core element, to me, helping people feel safe, at a very basic level, it’s just about building trust. You look at your behavior or the environment, and you say, in what ways can I establish a strong relationship? And I put it that way because what people need for a strong relationship, what they need to start trusting, that’s a little different for everyone. Like, if you just look at the physical area, maybe you’ve got one employee who was raised with a really minimalistic approach because they moved every year. And then you’ve got another employee who, you know, they’re used to having a more cluttered or small space for themselves, they’re used to be able to keep things. So let’s say now that you as a leader, you’re like, well, the company needs to save money, so we’ll have people work from home sometime, and we’ll rent out a smaller office where people don’t have assigned spaces. Well, that first employee, they might love that. They’re really used to not being able to kind of make their mark on a space or claim it. So they trust it and feel fine. But then your second employee, that’s really unnerving to them because they don’t feel like they can put down roots or have things around that they can connect to. So I don’t really think there’s like, one path that will build trust for everyone. You really just have to spend some time with other people and get a sense of what they’ve been through and what makes them tick.


But all that said, I do think that there are some foundational things that trust requires. And the first thing there is integrity. Why? Because integrity is what allows you to be consistent, whether that’s in your policies or just in what you talk about at the water cooler. You know, people like familiarity or patterns to an extent. I mean, think about if you know your grocery store is never, ever out of your favorite chicken wings. You’re gonna stop there every time. And when you’re consistent, people start to understand the kind of reaction they’ll get. They know what to expect. And that’s important because then they feel like they know how to handle or approach you. They know they’re not gonna get caught off guard, and they have a pretty good sense of how to approach interacting with you. So if you’re super awesome one day or with one coworker one day, and then you fly off the handle at someone the next day, that inconsistency is a big red flag. People see that and don’t feel like you’re stable enough to approach.


And then the second thing, and you might have seen this coming, but it’s empathy. As soon as people feel like you relate to them or like you can understand and respect how they’re feeling, it almost always accelerates the development of connection. Like, this one time, my husband, he was pretty good friends with one of his coworkers, so he invited this coworker over for an informal dinner at our place. And my husband, he’d mentioned ahead of time that this coworker was a lot like me. But when I actually sat down with this guy, it was almost funny, because the way he was commenting and phrasing things, it was like, oh my gosh, I just met my clone. And so we both started getting a little excited because that empathy made it felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of work to do to understand each other. So I think that’s the other part of building trust with people, is just trying to really listen and find points of commonality, and you know, there’s a lot of validating each other within that.


Now, to tie this back to Jesus and your faith, I think there are just some absolutely beautiful scriptures that describe this feeling of psychological safety, or this reassurance that that is what God is going to provide for us. But one of my favorites is Psalm 91:4, and that says, “He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” And I don’t know, most of you probably have seen birds, they’ll cover their chicks if it’s rainy or cold out. But if you haven’t really watched them, you know, I grew up on a little farm, so I got to see our chickens do this all the time. But the hens, they’ll gather their chicks underneath them to protect them. But if you observe the little chicks, you know, as the hen moves around a little bit, those chicks, until they get a little older and braver, if that hen moves, those chicks, they’ll scurry to get back under the wings of the mother hen. And what I want to point out to you is that that behavior, it’s not so much about the chicks being scared. It’s that, from day one, from the moment they hatched out of the egg, those chicks have experienced being under the wings of the mother in a consistent way. They know how that feels, they know that it feels good, and so they trust it. They trust that if they follow that mother hen around, they’ll be OK. And so when Moses wrote Psalm 91, when he talks about God’s faithfulness, he’s talking about how consistent in care and love and provision God is, that it’s trustworthy. That’s the connection He was making. He was saying God provides a safe place where you’re not only free from physical threats, but where you can be calm and rest and just know that you’re OK. Now, later, Jesus uses this same imagery in Matthew 23:37, where he talks about how the people of Jerusalem are stubborn and they won’t come under God’s wings. But when you really know who God is and you’ve really learned to trust Him, that kind of stubbornness has a way of falling away, and even when you’re in that place of stubbornness, that doesn’t change God’s desire to create that safe place for you.


So what I want to challenge you to do is, just ask yourself, “What can I do to gather people under my wings?” Or conversely, you can look at someone else next to you and say, “What do I need from them to trust them and feel like I’m under their wings?” So it’s about looking for opportunities to connect and help, and it’s about expanding your own self-awareness so that you’re really in touch with what’s helpful for you. If you can do those things, it’s easier to intentionally approach others and have some good, authentic conversations where it’s clear that you wanna be loving or are open to letting other people love on you a little more.


Now, the other challenge here is, remember, part of getting your faith and work aligned is this idea that, through your business or career, you can be of real service to God. So I want you to understand that, if psychological safety is missing or not very good, it becomes very difficult to do that well. We just become less effective in our mission, because people won’t feel like they really can partner with us on initiatives, let alone that they can be open about what they need or know spiritually. And in a more general sense, we need psychological safety within the church so we collectively can make good decisions and confide in each other and stay strong. Right? It’s hard to be a Christian, and I’m telling you, again, people look for patterns. So if someone’s felt psychologically unsafe a lot and then they experience that again with believers, what are they gonna do? They’re gonna pull back. They’re gonna say to themselves that the experience with the church and with God doesn’t feel right and they’re gonna walk away. So if you’re gonna represent God as part of the church at work, or if you wanna have people stick around at your worship services or Bible studies or whatever else, and I’m being a little silly here, but just be a chicken. You know, be that mother hen who intentionally makes a safe place. And if you need something from your team or your church that you’re not getting, or if you see problems, be brave enough to speak up about it. Because that’s the only way things will change and feel better, is if you make sure people are aware of the problem. And remember, a lot of times, if you don’t feel safe, you’re probably not the only one. I don’t think I need to dive too much into the problems that the church has had, all the scandals around abuse and whatnot. But the point there is that, when you speak truth — and remember God loves truth — that’s a loving thing that’s going to benefit others as much as it benefits you.


So let’s just pause on that note for a moment and pray.

God, you know that some of the worst times I ever have had in my life were ones where I didn’t have this sense of what we call psychological safety. And I know you’ve seen not only my struggles, but all the other people who are looking for a place where they can feel secure and loved. So Lord, in empathy, I pray for those people today. I pray that they will trust in the shelter you provide and that they will let a love of you open their hearts to being kind to each other. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.


That’s everything that was on the plate, so to speak. If you’re looking for something that can kind of be a visual reminder of the concepts from today, of Psalm 91:4, just go get yourself something with the image of a hen and chicks on it. Maybe a mug, maybe a printout of a picture you find online or a little figurine or something. You can even get Bible covers with chickens on ‘em. But find something, OK? Next time, we’ll be looking at Moses and what his story can teach you about where confidence really comes from. That’s in two weeks everybody, so go to faithfulontheclock.captivate.fm or your favorite podcast service and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss it. Take care, everybody, and be blessed.

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Faithful on the Clock
Faithful on the Clock is a podcast meant to get your Christian faith and work aligned. You won’t find mantras or hacks here--just scripture-based insights to help you grow yourself, your company, and your relationship with God. If you want out of the worldly hamster wheel and want to work with purpose, then this is the show for you. Hosted by freelance business writer Wanda Thibodeaux.
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Wanda Thibodeaux

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer based in Eagan, MN. Since 2006, she has worked with a full range of clients to create website landing pages, product descriptions, articles, professional letters, and other content. She also served as a daily columnist at Inc.com for three years, where she specialized in content on business leadership, psychology, neuroscience, and behavior.

Currently, Thibodeaux accepts clients through her website, Takingdictation.com. She is especially interested in motivational psychology, self-development, and mental health.