Over the past decade, the term “psychological safety” has become more and more prevalent in conversations about how we can make high performing organisations and how we can deal with mental health challenges in the workplace.
There has been quite a bit of activity in building tools and platforms that organisations can use to improve their policies and practices in workplace wellbeing and mental health. Most of these use what many see as the proven risk management methodologies that underpin Workplace Health and Safety compliance models.
In our view, these will be of limited effectiveness because setting policies, educating people about their responsibilities under the policies and enforcing the policies does not make people feel psychologically safe.
These systems rely heavily on people making complaints/reporting non-compliances and they are not likely to do that if they don’t feel psychologically safe to do so.
Let’s reframe psychological safety through an Appreciative Inquiry lens
Appreciative Inquiry is a proven change methodology that utilises a positive psychology approach with a focus on how to utilise the strengths of an organisation or group to address challenges or improvement opportunities.
In “Appreciative Inquiry A Positive Revolution in Change” by David L Cooperrider (Co-Creator of AI) and Diana Whitney (An AI Consultant and Author), one of the interesting questions explored is why AI gets such engagement from people and such great results.
A study done by Whitney and an associate Amanda Trosten-Bloom identified six essential conditions that AI generates to achieve that engagement and success – the six freedoms:
1. Freedom to be known in relationship: Essentially this means that people have the opportunity to be themselves as human beings and get to know each other on that basis rather than being typecast in roles. That builds bridges across “boundaries of power and authority” and helps to level the playing field for everyone.
2. Freedom to be heard: This is more than just listening to what someone has to say. It is about being curious and empathetic and really understanding the person’s story. By having appreciative conversations with people, they feel included and that they have a voice which is being heard. By acting on what people have to say, you tell them that their voice is valued.
3. Freedom to dream in community: In today’s complex world, visionary leadership means unleashing the dreams of people at all levels of the organisation. It is about being a safe place where large, diverse groups of people can share their dreams in dialogue with each other.
4. Freedom to choose to contribute: When people believe that they can choose to make a contribution and commit to doing a project, they are buying into it, not because they have to but because they want to. That creates determination and
people do what is necessary to make it work.
5. Freedom to act with support: When people know that people care about their work and are anxious to cooperate, they feel safe to experiment, innovate and learn. Whole system support stimulates people to take on challenges and draws people into acts of cooperation that bring out their best.
6. Freedom to be positive: In organisations today, it is simply not the norm to have fun, be happy or be positive. AI works because it creates the context for people to be positive and it has the power to not only make people feel pride in their work experiences but also to transform negative discourse and negative thinking into positive ideas and innovation.
Let’s reposition that to everyday work
As noted above, the common approach to dealing with psychological safety is the classic risk management model – risk assessment > policy > education > compliance. That is deficit thinking and it is actually part of the problem rather than being a solution.
The 6 freedoms set out above are related to the Appreciative Inquiry process and what it delivers in practice through a positive thinking approach.
Let’s take those freedoms and transform them into a set of 6 statements that might shine a really different light on what psychological safety really means every day at work.
Here are those 6 statements:
1. I get the opportunity to be myself and I am appreciated for that.
2. I genuinely have a voice which is listened to with curiosity and respect, and I believe that I have a positive impact with what I say.
3. I am encouraged to share my ideas and dreams with everyone, and I do that because it feels safe to do so.
4. I have opportunities to get involved in projects and I can make the choice myself as to whether I do, and, if so, what I do.
5. I am happy to experiment and learn new things because I feel supported by the system and the people.
6. I enjoy positive emotions because I feel good about the way we do things here.
Of course, our businesses and our people all experience challenges of one sort or another every day. We all have our struggles as individuals, teams and organisations.
Adopting a positive psychology approach won’t eliminate the struggles – they are just part of life. What it will do is make the process of dealing with those struggles so much more positive and engaging and deliver far better outcomes than just “fixing the problem”.