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The Psychological Safety Net

I was lucky enough to be at the Employee Experience Forum and Humans First meetup in London a couple of weeks ago watching my friend and colleague Duena Blomstrom present on how Psychological Safety Works to transform the workplace. While I was in with this incredibly heart centred group of mainly HR folk, I had one of those conversational moments that stick with you like glue with a communications human from Coca Cola. She was telling me about her boss, how great he was and how he gives her tonnes of space and independence to make the role and the team her own. Then she said, “He says to me, “I’ve given you a safety net, please use it.””

Well, I don’t know about you but I work with a lot of leaders in different environments and it’s fairly rarified air this person is breathing. With the best will in the world, we are still pretty near the beginning of the journey on psychological safety, servant leaders and bottom up leadership. A seismic shift in leadership is needed to deal with our VUCA world and this guy is leading the way. In this simple phrase, “I’ve given you a safety net, please use it,” this leader is overtly putting themselves at risk in order to give their team the space to innovate and fail.

Some more cynical types would say that this could lead to a belief that the job is for life or gives people license to underperform or try ideas out that make no sense in their business environment. I think we all know the job for life thing is over, well and truly!

This leader is opening up the opportunities for their team to grow, have ideas, screw it up while reaching for the stars and will then catch them when they fall back to earth. Amy Edmondson writes in Teaming, “Failure tolerance is a smart strategy for any organization wishing to gain new knowledge...Failures provide valuable information that allows organizations to be more productive, innovative and successful. But due to strong psychological and social reactions to failing, most of us see failure as unacceptable.” This last point is enduringly fascinating to me, in our work with teams and leaders we seem to be always undoing and unpicking perceptions and hang ups that have been weighing people down for years. That failure is unacceptable, that leaders must be omniscient and provide all the solutions, that we must not show vulnerability, the list goes on. “To err is human, to forgive divine” as the saying goes, three centuries after it was written can we begin to embrace a culture built on experimentation?

It really made me think about what a transformative approach it would be to become a leader or be a team member and hear from leaders you trust that you had a safety net, that you were safe to try things out, get them wrong, have crazy ideas, be yourself. I know this would have made a world of difference to many people I have worked with and coached and has made a world of difference when it’s been tried out as a leadership practice. Leaders and teams are constantly learning and need to be able to operate live in a learning environment (or learning organisation as Edmondson defines them) in order to have a chance of succeeding, let alone innovating.

An example which pushes this idea of the learning organization to a courageous and beautiful extreme is the the Target Dojo Consortium, an immersive learning environment created to allow teams to learn new technical and cultural skills and mindsets while working live on their real-world work and continuing to add value to customers. What a fantastic way to invite learning and failure at scale to give your company and people a competitive edge.

This phraseology and visual of the safety net feels to me to be an excellent way to illustrate psychological safety, it allows us to articulate the things that are wonderful in its workings and the worries leaders have due to all the aforementioned hang ups. The safety net of a leader who will support you and actively pushes you to stretch yourself combined with a team who consistently listen to each other, challenge each other and support each other to be better is a powerful mix. Imagine what we could achieve in that kind of learning organisation?

For some, making themselves sufficiently vulnerable to create an environment of psychological safety is a bit like stepping off a cliff after a lifetime of command and control and the fear of repercussions for themselves when they give people the freedom to fail is strong. Conversely though, this is why psychological safety works, because it doesn’t just sit on the leaders shoulders, it’s strength is in the group of humans who build and sustain that trust and belief in one another and their ability to fail, learn and innovate again and again - together.


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