When employees feel free to be who they are at work, they perform better as part of a team and are more likely to share innovative ideas with coworkers. In many of today’s workplaces, however, people don’t feel that way — they feel constrained and defensive. In my coaching practice, I often hear that people are worried about volatile bosses, feeling belittled when their ideas are put down in public, or seeing others being treated that way. These feelings are understandable given the tension at home, at work and on social media.
Think about this way — when you’re on a hike in the woods with some friends, imagine you turn the corner and see a 400-pound bear that begins to bristle. How do you feel? What happens to your body? Your body has an instinctual biological response, and neurochemicals (such as cortisol and epinephrine) rush into your system, causing your heart rate and blood flow to increase.
This fight-or-flight reaction activates you for self-preservation, and it’s the same heightened state of fear that is elevated when you read the news, juggle work and family responsibilities, or find yourself in a toxic work environment.
What’s Happening Today
Surveys show that 60% of people say they feel stressed about the current climate and political polarization in the United States. Layered on top of that is the threat of a global pandemic. Even before people come to work, they feel a high level of background threat. Add family stress, such as mental health issues among teens or the burden of caregiving for parents, and it’s no wonder that we’re more prone to self-preservation than ever before.
On a daily basis, we all face situations that lead to instinctual emotional and physiological reactions, and this prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead us to less-than-ideal behaviors such as being aggressive, being defensive or supporting a culture of victimhood instead of healthy conflict resolution. As I work with companies to overcome and correct this type of strained environment, I encourage people to identify where they can have agency and work together to create a culture of psychological safety rather than taking a victim stance.
To be sure, the definition of “psychological safety” itself has become strained. Some people misinterpret it to mean that everyone must say nice things to each other, not ruffle any feathers, and avoid creating tension at all costs. In reality, differences of opinion and conflicts can happen, will happen and can be key ingredients in creating a healthy environment. When there are differences, we need to strive to create a climate where people can thrive and where everyone feels confident to present ideas, questions and concerns without the fear of negative consequences like being punished for mistakes or for just being different. Everyone needs to believe that others will be respectful, open minded and have each others’ backs.
To do this, we have to become more skilled at talking to each other. Typically, we interact indirectly with others — through emails, texts and group chats. Consequently, we don’t have as many opportunities to practice developing real relationships. We’re not having the conversations that allow us to understand each other or appreciate each other’s skills and accomplishments. Without information about each others’ tone, intentions and body language, these indirect communications often turn into misunderstandings. It takes skill and courage to step back, be intentional and consider how to have tricky conversations.
What You Can Do
Imagine a scenario where a manager or coworker makes a remark that you find offensive. In the moment, you may feel your heart rate increase, a bit queasy in the pit of your stomach or your mind begin to race. You have two options: allow your threat response to take over, or assume positive intent and try to understand why the other person would make that remark and what they intended. The second option often leads to better communication and teamwork, but it can be tough to do. Here’s how to approach it:
- Be mindful. First, recognize the physiological response happening in your body and where the feeling of threat starts. What are you feeling, and is it part of your natural fight-or-flight response? Note how you feel.
- Pay attention. Now shift your focus to the other person and become curious about who they are, their life experience and what may have sparked their reaction and yours. What awareness can you bring to this situation?
- Be intentional. Although we may appear different on the outside, we all have similarities underneath the surface. We all thrive in a climate of safety and belongingness, and you can respond in a respectful way that shows careful thought about what, how, when and where the remark was said.
- Be brave. The only thing that you can control is yourself, so instead of shrinking under threat, take agency and speak up. You can empower yourself by speaking about your experience, giving examples and changing the frame of the conversation.
For instance, it can be easy to assume that your coworker intended to cut you off at the knees, humiliate you in front of others, and take away your authority. However, until you know otherwise, it’s best to assume positive intent. This doesn’t mean approaching the situation with naïvete but, rather, being curious about that person’s frame of reference and what they intended. While it might feel intensely personal, often it isn’t. Maybe your coworker is worried about making her numbers at the end of the month, making a mistake, or missing a deadline — all which reflect her own stress rather than any issue she has with you.
In the end, the key is to maintain an open mindset of respect and curiosity as well as a willingness to be brave and act intentionally. You’ll be better equipped to change the frame on what their words or actions mean, and this will impact how you react. Certainly, managers and leaders have an important role to play as role models and advocates, as well as an important responsibility for championing psychological safety. But it’s not an either/or situation. Empower yourself to thrive and be a role model for others, and you will contribute to building a climate of psychological safety together.