80% of Psychological Safety Has Nothing to Do With Psychology

or Why the Lack of Psychological Safety Makes You Dumber

80% of Psychological Safety Has Nothing to Do With Psychology

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

It’s been over 20 years since “Psychological Safety” exploded onto the scene and into the business lexicon.  But as good as it sounded, I always felt like it was one of those “safe space, everyone gets a trophy, special snowflake” things we had to do to make the Millennials (and subsequent generations) happy.

Then I read Alla Weinberg’s book, A Culture of Safety, and realized I was very, very wrong.

It’s not the equivalent of an HR-approved hug and high-five. 

It’s the foundation of what we do. Without it, there is no productivity, creativity, or progress.

Needing to know more, I reached out to Alla, who graciously agreed to teach me.

Thanks for speaking with me, Alla.  Let’s get right to the point: why should I, or any business leader, care about psychological safety?

The short answer is that without psychological safety, you are dumber.  When you feel unsafe, your operating IQ, which you use for daily tasks, drops in half.

Think about all the people you work with or all the people in your company.  They’re there because they’re smart, have experience, and demonstrated that they can do the job.  But then something goes wrong, and you wonder why they didn’t anticipate it or plan appropriately to avoid it.  You start to question their competence when, in fact, it may be that they feel unsafe, so parts of their brain have gone offline.  Their operating IQ isn’t operating at 100%.

I am so guilty of this.  When things go wrong, I assume someone didn’t know what to do, so they need to be trained, or they did know what to do and decided not to do it. It never occurs to me that there could be something else, something not logical, going on.

We all forget that human beings are biological creatures, and survival is the number one evolutionary trait for all living beings. Our body and mind are wired to ensure our continued existence.

A part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, responsible for planning, executive thought, and analysis – is unique to humans, and it goes offline when our body feels unsafe. 

When we experience extreme stress, our body and mind cannot distinguish an impending deadline from a lunging tiger.  Our body and mind prioritize survival, so we experience all the biological responses to a threat, like getting tunnel vision, losing peripheral vision, and perceiving limited options.

So, when you’re trying to meet a deadline, and your manager or supervisor asks why you didn’t consider alternatives or complete a specific task, it’s because you physically couldn’t think of it at that moment. This is how human beings operate.

My first reaction is to wonder who can’t tell the difference between a deadline and a tiger because if you can’t tell the difference between the two, you may have bigger problems.  But when you mentioned the inability to perceive options, I immediately thought of something that happened yesterday.

I was on a call with a client, someone I’ve worked with for years and consider a friend, and we were trying to restructure a program to serve their client’s needs better.  I didn’t feel under threat…

Consciously.  You didn’t consciously feel under threat.

Right, I didn’t feel consciously under threat. But I froze.  I absolutely couldn’t think.  I put my head in my hands and tried to block out all the light and the noise, and I still couldn’t think of any option other than what we were already doing.  My brain came to a screeching halt.

That’s your nervous system, and it’s a huge driver of psychological safety.  80% of the information our brain receives comes from our nervous system.  So, while you didn’t consciously feel unsafe, your body felt unsafe and sent a signal to your brain to go into survival mode, and your brain chose to freeze.

But it was a Zoom call.  I was sitting alone in my office. I wasn’t unsafe.  Why would my nervous system think I was unsafe?

Your nervous system doesn’t think. It perceives and reacts.  Let me give you a simple illustration that we’ve all experienced.  When you touch something hot, your hand immediately pulls away.  You say “ouch” after your hand is away from the heat source.  When you felt the hot object, your nervous system entered survival mode and pulled away your hand.  Your brain then had to catch up, so you saw “Ow” after the threat was over.

Hold up.  We’re talking about psychological safety.  What does my nervous system have to do with this?

I define psychological safety as a state of our nervous system with three states: safe, mobilized (fight or flight), and immobilized (freeze response). The tricky part is not psychological but neurobiological. You cannot think your way to safety or unfreeze yourself. The rational mind has no control over this. Mantras and mindsets won’t make you feel safe; it’s a neurobiological process.

That is a plot twist I did not see coming.

Stay tuned for Part 2:

How to Use Your Nervous System to Feel Psychologically Safe, or “Why Mandating a Return to the Office Destroys Safety”

Image Credit: Pexels

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4 thoughts on “80% of Psychological Safety Has Nothing to Do With Psychology

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