Psychologically Unsafe Work Environments: Toxic Culture - SACAP
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The Danger of Psychologically Unsafe Work Environments: How Toxic Culture is Born

Jul 04, 2023 | By Dr Lauren Martin
Team leaders creating a psychologically safe work environment allowing people to collaborate
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According to Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is an environment where people feel they can express themselves, their thoughts, and ideas without fear. When psychologically safe environments are present, people are more effective, more collaborative, and more innovative. But when the environment is psychologically unsafe, then fear, mistrust and a toxic workplace culture breeds.

The more senior the leader, often the more psychologically unsafe the environment is for them. When top leadership perceives their environment as unsafe, it’s challenging for them to create safe environments for others. Therefore, often, perpetuating psychologically unsafe environments for employees and teams. We need self-aware leaders who continuously work on themselves and their fears for the greater good of the organisation.

“As a leader, what type of work environment are you creating or perpetuating?”

How leadership can perpetuate psychologically unsafe environments?

  1. When the ‘Yes Man’ is recognised. When leadership values, prioritises and even promotes employees who bring conformity in thought, process and services. When leadership values conformity over diversity, they suffocate the creativity and innovation necessary for growth.
  2. When leadership label outspoken employees as ‘difficult’. When speaking up, offering another viewpoint or challenging the status quo is met with resistance.
  3. When challenges are raised, leadership dismisses the need to make visible changes. When employees raise concerns, but leadership fails to demonstrate a willingness to make tangible changes or doesn’t recognise the need to entertain the idea.
  4. When those who speak up feel their jobs or future promotions may be hindered. If employees are not approaching leadership because they are worried about how their manager will view them, a toxic culture breeds. 
  5. When leadership want the title but lack the compassion to truly understand what’s happening on the ground. Leadership that dismisses the concerns of their employees breeds a culture of fear and mistrust, stunting progress and potential. Employees need leaders who have the courage to make changes for the good of the organisation not for themselves. Otherwise, employees see a disconnect between them and leadership, ‘us versus them’ mindset.
  6. When diversity is not encouraged. When employees are promoted because they create comfort or safety for top leadership – promoting those who think and act in the same way. Strong leaders leave to find environments that value true collaboration and difference in perspective.
  7. When leadership stops caring about the small or trivial things, its time for them to move aside. leadership is hard work. It is the responsibility to truly care about people. When leadership stops caring about the people, about the challenges, about the alternative perspective, it is no longer effective.

What is needed to create psychologically safe environments?

1. Leadership training should be prioritised within an organisation

Often no one is taught how to be a leader, rather people learn on the job.

  1. All individuals need to learn how to have tough conversations constructively. If individuals don’t know how to raise difficult ideas or individuals don’t know how to actively collaborate on difficult conversations, the conversations don’t take place.
  2. All individuals need to learn how to receive constructive feedback. This goes both ways. Both leaders and employees. Its one thing to raise a difficult topic but if either can’t receive the feedback openly and constructively, difficult conversations are stopped. Difficult conversations can feel personal and can be taken as a personal attack, when we approach conversations like this, we are already creating division.
  3. All individuals need to learn how to raise ideas, alternative viewpoints and another perspective in a manner that enhances conversation and doesn’t sow division. How we raise and engage in difficult conversations is a skill that must be practiced – otherwise it can create tension, mistrust, and division.

2. Encourage open communication: create channels for feedback

Reward open and constructive feedback. Build tangible ways to receive feedback and then act on the feedback, showing the organisation that their voice is heard.

3. Create space for anonymous reporting

If an organisation truly values feedback and wants to hear stakeholder voice, create spaces for feedback that is safe for those providing feedback. To create safety and to really understand what is happening, opt for anonymous surveys or reporting channels.

4. When failure happens, demonstrate how this is managed in an organisation

When employees make reasonable mistakes in pursuit for creativity, innovation and experimentation, how are these handled? Are these seen as learning opportunities or are employees punished. When staff are fearful of making a mistake, fear stops staff from bringing their full selves to work.

5. Create an reward ideas

Create tangible ways within reporting structures, job descriptions, performance reviews or projects where ideas and employee input is rewarded and encouraged.

6. Professional coaching or counselling

Creating psychologically safe environments requires each member to work on themselves, their fears, their insecurities, their biases, and the manner in which they interact. Coaching or counselling creates a safe space for employees to work on themselves and develop greater self-awareness. If each employees is working on themselves, they show up differently to the work environment and every team engagement.

7. Normalise asking for feedback

After meetings, presentations or critical conversations, leaders and employees should ask for feedback. This add to their own growth and to reinforce that others’ perspectives are important.

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