BambooHR Podcast: What Happens at Work

What happens at work never just stays there—it seeps into our private lives, affecting our personal relationships and shaping our aspirations. Add to those everyday pressures the unprecedented upheavals triggered by the pandemic, and we’ve all had to rethink what work should be about.

In What Happens at Work, a new BambooHR podcast centered on real-life employee experiences, we hand the microphone directly to employees around the world to hear how the actions and efforts of leadership and HR have impacted their lives, for better and worse. In each episode, we also consult with experts to help us unpack these real-life stories and find positive ways to apply lessons learned in the workplace to our future interactions.

Episodes 1 through 7 are live now, so be sure to listen in! Our inaugural episode covers a topic that underlies all workplace experiences—the presence or lack of psychological safety.

Episode 1: What Psychological Safety at Work Actually Looks Like

In episode 1, What Happens at Work host Amy Frampton, Head of Marketing at BambooHR, sits down with Dr. Tim Clark, founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, and author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, to discuss the following:

Psychological Safety in Action: Maria’s Story

Maria, a seasoned customer service professional, had a problem. She was working 50 to 60 hours a week handling calls with furious customers. Maria believed the company’s “quantity over quality” approach to providing service ensured that the customers calling in were always going to be furious.

After one particularly arduous stretch—working 30 days without a single day off—Maria knew she needed a change. She accepted another customer service role at a technology company, a startup.

Right away, she could tell things were different, but it wasn’t until a particularly negative interaction with a customer that she fully understood why. It marked one of only three times she’s ever had to hang up on a customer, and because the company was a startup, she was nervous about potentially losing the company a much-needed source of revenue. She decided to get ahead of it and went to her boss immediately.

Instead of reprimanding her, Maria’s manager asked her how she felt—something that would never have happened at her previous job. Stranger still, after hearing the abuse the customer had been hurling at her, her boss decided to fire the customer on the spot.

Maria felt a massive weight lift off her shoulders. With her manager’s concern and validation, she no longer felt at fault. And even better, she never had to worry about enduring another one of this customer’s angry tirades again.

Maria felt safe.

How to Define Psychological Safety

For Dr. Tim Clark, Maria’s experience at the first company in her story is a textbook example of what happens when an employee doesn’t feel psychologically safe in the workplace. And it comes as no surprise that she felt the need to leave an employer who had no interest in her wellbeing, let alone fixing the environment that was burning her out.

“Volume naturally leads to transactional relationships—and transactional relationships are naturally susceptible to becoming dehumanizing,” Tim notes.

On the other hand, the experience at the startup was so much better because Maria felt psychologically safe. But what exactly does that mean?

What Is Psychology Safety?

Tim defines psychological safety as “rewarded vulnerability.” Maria was not only able to share her terrible experience with her manager, but the manager listened to her, empathized with her, and showed her she was more important than keeping an angry and abusive customer. Unlike the customer in question, her boss understood the importance of making others feel safe at work.

As Tim puts it, rewarded vulnerability is a function of two things: respect and permission. Employees need to feel respected to know that their experiences, ideas, and feelings matter. And they need to know they have permission to share these experiences rather than hold them in, perhaps especially when it’s difficult.

What Psychology Safety Is Not

According to Tim, there are many misconceptions about what constitutes psychological safety in the workplace. That’s why he always finds it equally helpful to define what it is not.

Psychological safety isn’t simply “niceness” in the workplace—in fact, prioritizing being nice comes with its own problems. If you’re too nice, that means you aren’t giving employees the valid criticisms they need in order to grow.

Similarly, psychological safety does not mean a lack of accountability. In fact, enforcing accountability for abusive behaviors is at the heart of creating psychological safety.

Finally, while everyone’s input should be freely voiced and similarly heard, psychological safety does not remove the need for decision-makers. It’s the decision-makers’ responsibility to create a psychologically safe environment, and then enforce the final say on matters so the company can get things done. And to create an environment of psychological safety, it’s important to understand its four stages.

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

The way psychological safety presents is the same all around the globe, Tim says, and it moves through four distinct, sequential stages:

  1. Inclusion safety: You feel included and accepted in the workplace. You have a sense of belonging and a connection to those with whom you work.
  2. Learner safety: You feel safe in the learning process. You are comfortable learning and engaging in discovery.
  3. Contributor safety: You contribute value. You’re given an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution and to make a difference—an appropriate level of autonomy, role clarity, guidance, and support.
  4. Challenger safety: You can challenge the status quo without fear of retribution or retaliation, jeopardizing your reputation, or putting your career on the line. You’re confident that this challenging behavior will be rewarded, not punished.

“That is the sequence in which humans want to satisfy their basic needs,” Tim says. “It's a very consistent pattern that cuts across demographics, psychographics, and cultural attributes.”

Tim describes challenger safety as the hardest stage to cultivate in the workplace, but it yields the most rewards for your business. It’s how you stay innovative, tackle problems, and scale in a healthy way.

Innovative company cultures are possible when employees aren’t afraid to share their ideas. But telling employees you want them to speak up isn’t enough—you need to cultivate an environment where they want to speak up. And that takes psychological safety.

Advice for Leaders

These days psychological safety at work is a condition of employment—especially in the wake of the pandemic and the resulting Great Resignation.

During the heightened stress of COVID-19, many looked at their working lives and reevaluated what really mattered in an employer. Psychological safety became table stakes. And this is doubly true for Gen Z, who are entering the workforce with these expectations already in place.

“If you're in a position where you're managing humans, then you need to have a track record of being able to create psychological safety,” Tim says. “And if you don't have that track record, you shouldn't be managing humans. It's that critical.”

That means leaders need to understand the core components of psychological safety and not just say, as Tim satirizes, “We’re going to have a speak-up culture, by golly, and it starts now!”

Leaders can’t just decree it into existence, Tim explains. “If you have not created the conditions in the culture of rewarded vulnerability, it's disingenuous of you to say that—that's not how it works.”

Instead, leaders need to understand that cultural transformation comes from rewarding acts of vulnerability. “That's how you move a culture to high levels of psychological safety,” Tim concludes. “There is no shortcut. There is no workaround. It's the only way.”

What will it take to create psychological safety at your workplace?

Listen to the full episode to learn how leadership shapes what’s possible.

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