The Dark Side of Psychological Safety: Sometimes You Are Not Supposed to Feel Safe at Work

So Google has been tapping away producing “groundbreaking” research that shows employees need to feel psychologically (i.e. emotionally and cognitively) safe to produce their best team work. LinkedIn is awash with reposts. Ted Talks pop up everywhere. Suddenly, trainings and workshops are filled with the latest trendy content. (Full disclosure: I’m probably guilty of sticking Google’s study in the odd workshop design myself.)

I’m not sure about you, but to me it is exceedingly obvious that secure teams produce the best performance/teamwork. If, as a leader, you need this to be pointed out, it’s probably time to tender your resignation. Or, at least, to start reading a book a month on teams, leadership and management.

I would like to argue that this is also a chicken-and-egg situation. High-performing individuals or teams (those that deliver a great deal of relevant output, at high speed, with little friction, together) have no need to feel unsafe. There should be a massive positive correlation between high performance and feelings of safety. Google haven’t really pointed out which is causal. Is the safety causing the performance? Or the performance causing the safety? Correlation does not imply causation. That’s a fundamental tenet of science.

At the other end of the spectrum

If I am in a team, (or even just as an individual) and find I am involved in a failure to deliver, am I really going to feel my job is safe, and my reputation is secure? During one chapter of my career, after a relationship breakup, I went through a period of not performing at work. I struggled to get in on time. Wasn’t motivated. Didn’t deliver. As part of that, I was fortunate enough to be able to share with my boss that the causes of this current lapse were factors outside of work. He was super supportive. And really made it easy for me.

But what if the causes of the unease, stress or discomfort were some of the following:

  • Failing to fulfill commitments
  • Overrunning on projects/budget
  • Failing to communicate about overruns or non-delivery
  • Ignoring superiors’ requests for action or information
  • Low levels of capability for a key job task
  • Poor planning or poor execution
  • Handling conflicts badly and creating disunity
  • Breaking implicit (cultural) or explicit (employee contract) rules
  • Performance being questioned about any or all of the above
  • Poor delegation

Work doesn’t have squads. In sports teams, without getting fired, you can be dropped from the first team, but still get to train. You can be banned from training with the team and made to train alone. In many sports teams if you are one minute late for training you will be punished (say, with a fine of a week’s wages). But you are still part of the squad. This is a pretty cool way of addressing performance whilst retaining all the sense of belonging.

“Not feeling safe is a key cue to reexamine our situation and consider what we can do to be accepted by others.”

In work, the effect of our non-performance is normally some kind of anxiety about our place in the group, or our relationship with our boss (or a client). Maybe including worry about our job security. Humans are a social animal and this anxiety is designed into our psyche to help us get back on board with what the tribe is doing. We have a word for people who don’t feel this type of anxiety. We call them psychopaths (look it up on DSM-IV). Not feeling safe is a key cue to reexamine our situation and consider what we can do to be accepted by others.

Managing under-performance, whether as a trend or a one-off, is one of the hardest things I have to do as a leader and manager. It’s rare here. (We have a brilliant team full of brilliant individuals). But it happens. Sometimes it’s me. The team are quick to point my poor performance out, sensitively. I have improved since taking on a mentor. Sometimes managing performance requires an HR-style performance plan. Sometimes a challenging conversation (lots of courses to help do that better).

Those of us with this leadership responsibility should heed the following:

  1. Timing, tone and tempo. Work hard to ensure that the delivery of the message is professional and level. (I find this really difficult, so I write the word ‘SLOWLY’ on my meeting notes)
  2. Avoid blame. (I find this really difficult, so I script out what I want to say in advance)
  3. Accept responsibility, with boundaries. Take ownership in your part in the situation. By definition, bosses are always complicit in underperformance. But don’t claim all the responsibility
  4. Delete half the things you want to say. As soon as these dialogues are scheduled I want to put in all the frustrations I’ve ever had. Stick to one or two key points based in fact. Just let all the other stuff go. Don’t rake over old coals
  5. Make it an investment. Building a great relationship over time requires working through positive conflict. Frame that up front

Conclusion: So, who is going to feel safe in the end? Tips for us as employees:

  1. High-performing individuals whose business results are so outstanding any failing will be worked around. Simply put; just go out and smash it
  2. People keen to learn, who proactively seek improvement feedback and then implement it immediately
  3. People who make a mistake once, and learn from it
  4. Those who are highly organised and have a full handle on their workload, clients, projects and work hard to communicate well any anomalies as quickly as possible
  5. People who are relationally close to their boss or people in power. (Not really what we are aiming for, but it’s true. So probably worth working at, to some extent)

And who is going to feel legitimately unsafe/anxious? Things for us to avoid:

  1. Low performing individuals who fail to deliver the results consistently (time to get on
  2. People who are closed to improvement, become defensive, combative, or in denial
  3. People who repeatedly make the same mistakes. This is different from not getting the results
  4. Those who are unorganised and don’t have a full handle on their projects. Specifically, those that allow superiors to identify mistakes and gaps rather than proactively communicating them. (This makes your boss feel insecure, well worth sorting out)
  5. People who are relationally distant or avoidant. If you are avoidant at work, it’s a subconscious cue that something is wrong with your place in the group iw