After I read everything I could find on Project Aristotle and psychological safety, I brought the subject up with my therapist. I explained the research and the concept, then went on to say that the whole thing depended on trust. In my mind, people are trustworthy if they are reliable, consistent, and kind. I don’t completely trust someone unless I feel that they have my best interests at heart – that they care about me.
Then I played devil’s advocate a bit but was also voicing my own concerns. I asked, “How can a person ever completely trust another human being?” I mean, we are human, and we make mistakes. We don’t follow through, and we let people down. Sometimes we care about ourselves more than others. Every now and then we get upset and yell. Is it even possible to create psychological safety in relationships?
The therapist then answered with a question that I often ask during leadership workshops. I hate it when my stuff comes back at me. He asked, “Kathy, who can you control?”
“Only me,” I replied with a sigh, but then continued, “I know that, but how can I have psychological safety with other people whom I cannot control who will positively, without a doubt, disappoint me at some time?” Before we go on, I want to point out that I know that I am a flawed human being who disappoints others on occasion.
Then he asked me why a disappointment or word not kept or words said in anger had to destroy trust. Hmmm. Interesting question. It felt like the answer had two parts.
First, I could alter my expectations and standards a bit. Instead of demanding perfection and admirable superhuman behavior 100% of the time, I could accept the fact that people (including me) goof up.
Second, I could use some strength of character to endure disappointments, rude tones, and even yelling with more grace. If I know that people are going to lose their tempers and forget to do things, then I can accept those actions in stride.
When someone is upset and venting in a coaching session, we call it standing in the lion’s roar. As coaches, we stand firm, but without judgment or reactive emotion. We don’t take it personally. Can I do that in my personal life when I am not coaching?
Let’s briefly go back to secrets, which are one of the signs that psychological safety does not exist. Why do I want to hide the fact that I am throwing away supplements or not tell anyone when I get turned around while driving somewhere? I don’t want to face questions, anger, or teasing. Why don’t I? I mean it’s not pleasant, but it’s not life-threatening. I can help create psychological safety with a little grit and courage.
In my supplement scenario, my husband would be justified in some annoyance at my buying and not using supplements. Is there any reason not to allow him to express that annoyance? Why shouldn’t I let him tell me his reaction?
It might not be the reaction that I am predicting anyway! He might see the bottles in the trash and say, “That’s too bad that those didn’t work for you the way that you hoped.” In relationships that matter, both at home and at work, we need to allow others to express their feelings. We need to be brave enough to listen.
The first step in creating psychological safety is building some courage and resilience. Teams at work depend on people expressing differing points of view in order to find the best solutions to challenges. The same is true of every relationship.
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