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Psychological Safety


Psychological safety. Something you can research, and something you can intellectually understand, but until you feel how it feels to be psychologically unsafe, navigating it may be difficult. In this episode I discuss strategies for pre-empting the risks and potential impacts of feeling psychologically unsafe in the workplace and ways to proactively deal with it before it causes ongoing personal harm. We also discussed how psychological unsafety presents itself, and how to know when to stay the course or walk away.

You'll Learn

  • A scoring system to keep you safe

  • Actions to cover your a$s and pre-empt fall-outs

  • How to protect yourself first


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Episode Transcript


EP #49

“Do I need a life coach?” You’re listening to Episode 49, with Rhiannon Bush

Welcome to the Do I need a life coach? Podcast. We’re here to discuss the ins- and outs- of the life coaching industry and give you tools to use, to see for yourself. I’m your host, Rhiannon Bush. Mother, management consultant and a passionate, certified life coach.

Today, want to talk about psychological safety. And it was very interesting that it came up for me recently, and I say “interesting” because it’s something I struggled to talk about. I hated labelling how I was feeling as “psychologically unsafe“ and it felt incredibly vulnerable for me to admit that. I feel very sound of mind, most of the time one of the worst things I experience is when I have a lot going on a heightened level of stress which sometimes comes out as anxiety. It’s more of an anticipation of “well, when am I going to drop the ball and which one will drop?”. Instead of anticipating success, I tend to anticipate difficulties and failings.

Years ago I had a boss. I loved but I eventually left that business for another opportunity. I was incredibly sad that he would no longer be my boss because he’d taught me so much, as have all my bosses really, but I was particularly fond of this one and the opportunities he’d provided me with. Anyway it had been a fairly turbulent environment and I think I’m a pretty positive person, so despite the turbulence and this one power-tripping colleague kicking my butt, I thought the environment and this boss’s treatment of me was fairly sound. There were moments, yes, but aren’t there always?

In this particular case, I went back in a couple of months after I was no longer working there, to say hi and visit and it was really lovely until I realised that when I was around him, I was not psychologically safe. I didn’t know that that’s what it was at the time, until I learnt the term from researching Project Aristotle, by Google and delivering a keynote on the Development of High Performing Teams. And when I researched what psychological safety was, I still didn’t really quite understand because I didn’t feel it. I recently saw a post online that defined psychological safety as interacting with yourself vs psychological hazards as interacting with your surroundings, and that the goal is to reduce all hazards to create a psychologically safe environment. It talks about lack – a lack of guidance, of breaks, of support, and unachievable job demand. I get all that on an intellectual level, but until this experience, I didn’t know how it felt to be psychologically unsafe. It made a lot of sense logically, but I hadn’t experienced it after I learnt the definition of it. So I didn’t really get it. Sort of like reading how to ride a bike, and then actually riding a bike. They’re not the same thing.

And since considering all of this more, I truly think psychological safety comes down to the people you work with and have to interact with. You may have safety with the team you work with, but not the clientele – as with disability support or aged care workers, nurses, the list goes on. I also think you can have an entire team of people who make you feel safe, even your C-Suite or direct boss, they can be amazingly supportive and give you everything you need to feel psychologically safe, but one person can completely derail their good work.

And so when I was in the employment I was talking about earlier, I truly hadn’t thought twice about it. I thought it was safe, that I was safe. I saw the positives but when I went back, I realised for the first time what it meant to feel psychologically unsafe. What it looked like and how it felt for me. And for me, the primary way it manifested was by me not being able to be honest. I couldn’t safely debate a point and by ‘safe’ I meant that if I spoke I was rebutted, shut-down, disagreed with and not logically, but in a way that was weighted in judgement. Have you ever experienced that? I couldn’t bounce ideas or openly discuss various options or creatively problem solve. It also meant I didn’t feel that I could stand my ground, which feeds firmly into personal boundaries. I also couldn’t express my true opinions if it differed from my old boss. And when I wasn’t able to speak truthfully, or even factually, about things that were going on or call this person out if I needed to assist the organisation to grow and make it better, it inhibited my ability to do my work, as well as my self-confidence and my self-esteem.

And as somebody who has always had strong opinions and never really failed to share them, to experience that the way that I did and with someone I thought I trusted, surprised me. But isn’t that often the way? The people who build trust with us are the ones how can more easily abuse that trust? Because it’s only when we care that we can hurt.

I had seen this boss treat other people in a way that was completely underhand and beyond inappropriate by any stretch, I don’t even mean amongst social circles. I mean workplaces, I mean socially, I mean in every way inappropriate and I made a comment to a colleague about how “he doesn’t treat me like that”. She just looked at me, raised her eyebrows and said “are you kidding?” She said “he absolutely does, but you don’t seem to notice”. That definitely made me stop and think. Going back through past events, I didn’t disagree with her, but I also didn’t quite fully agree either. I never felt like he treated me the way I saw him treat others, because in my mind, had that happened, I never would’ve accepted it. And I certainly wouldn’t have stayed in an environment where I was being treated like that. But it’s not like he ever did that in the early days of someone being employed, it was always after that person was comfortable and felt safe. Which I was. So that begged the question, had I let it go too far?

Ironically, or not, if we understand the law of attraction and quantum physics, I experienced this exact thing again later, with a different person in a different business. Again, it was a male who had significant power in the business I was working in. We needed to work quite closely together, and I felt similar things happening. I couldn’t openly share my opinion, I couldn’t call BS on things I was witnessing because I felt inferior, and in essence, I couldn’t do my job.

He was able to manipulate the situation to make me sound however he wanted to within the business - could pump me up and tear me down as quickly and easily as he saw fit. But given how I felt, how could I stand my ground and say “this isn’t right” or “this needs to be done differently”? Depending on how manipulative the other person is, you end up feeding into whichever outcome they want because they’ll twist things or use things to however they need to. It’s about power dynamics.

If I fear telling you the truth, because of the way that you’re going to react or use the information, and that influences my position or my reputation, then psychologically I’m unsafe. And the consequence of that is that I will be actively be dishonest, and that maybe in half-truths, because I go into self-preservation mode. Opposed to standing in my power and addressing the fact that I don’t agree with something or that, it’s not right. You picking favourites, not right. You dividing and conquering, not right. You getting me to do your bidding, not right. You hitting on me, not right. You planting seeds with me to then go and do your bidding, not right. Especially when you’re in a position of higher authority or power than me. There are fundamental societal, social, cultural, workplace rights and wrongs and if I fear holding you accountable to those, I’m psychologically unsafe. If I choose to engage in those behaviours with you because I choose to, even if they’re wrong, then I’m psychologically safe. It’s when I go against my own will, against my own moral compass because I don’t feel I have a choice and the consequences of staying true to me will be damaging and negative that it becomes about psychological safety. And how subjective is that? Essentially we’re dealing with people’s moral and ethical compasses.

In a role where you need to exhibit power, and you have authority to some degree due to your rank or title, even if it’s not as much authority as the other person has, it makes it incredibly hard for somebody to do their job and feel good about doing their job if there’s a degree of psychological unsafety. When you fear the repercussions and the risk to your personal reputation because of the way the other person is going to act.

So, if you find your cowering from a conversation, or you’re hiding, or you fear what’s going to fly back at you, and this prevents you from stepping into your power or giving your opinion, chances are it’s because you don’t feel psychologically safe.

This is detrimental to you as a human trying to live as honestly and authentically as possible, and also to you in the workplace or your business depending on where you are. It will affect every environment you operate in. As discovered by Google in Project Aristotle, the largest inhibitor of high performing teams at work as it limits productivity, innovation, and collaboration which is extremely important for organisations needing to remain competitive and agile.

So ways to go about feeling more psychologically safe. The first question is to give it a degree so you understand the severity of it. It’s difficult to understand the impact it’s having without first understanding the degree of difficulty you’re facing. And I recommend doing this with specific people – give your ‘psychological safety’ a score out of 10 with each of them. A rank of 0/10 means you’re so psychologically unsafe you couldn’t be less of yourself if you tried. 10/10 means you bring your complete self – warts, lumps, bumps, wrinkles, attitude and all. Rank your significant other, you’d hope it’s a 10/10. If it’s not, contact me – we need to talk. Then look at your other relationships – at home, at work, in life. Your boss, your colleagues.. be honest.

The next question to ask yourself – and the answer is a yes or no, you’re in or you’re out, is can I ever see this improving, or is there too much history and water under the bridge for it to ever completely change? It’s a big question, and a necessary one.

If you’ve decided it can improve, especially if dealing with somebody in the workplace, find somebody in the business of equal or higher rank to said person, and seek their opinion or advice. This will not only give you their informed opinion as they understand the context, the personalities, etc. they will most likely also have experience and credibility, but the best thing seeking their opinion is that it will also give you their endorsement.

Then, if there are conversations had behind your back by these people, then the person who gave you that advice is likely to turn around and say “oh yes, I told them that that was the approach to take” and because of their power, their opinion will stand. It’ll give you some kind of social influence. They’ll help you defend your actions and your position with that person.

The second is to cover your bases. So if you behave in a way that may jeopardise your reputation at the hands of the person who makes you feel unsafe, and you don’t trust their intentions as in you think they’re going to say something, then you can consider the options and if needed, get ahead of it. One way to manage it is to get ahead of it by speaking about what happened and managing the potential consequences of it. Or you can let them make the first move and let the chips for where they may, but have your answers ready and prepared to defend your behaviour and decisions should you need to. The best example of this is I remember girl I used to work with. We were made redundant at the same time and she got a new job with a small workplace in the tech space. She had a woman in that workplace who would belittle her publicly, not give her clear direction and also request she worked ridiculous hours but last minute. So my friend couldn’t plan or work her schedule out ahead of time because of the last minute requests. The owners of this business, who’d hired my friend, asked her whether she was doing ok. They saw her break down a number of times and eventually my friend just quit. She tried to have conversations to raise the issues but because of the standing this woman had in the business, she was deemed too important when compared with my friend, to be reprimanded, held accountable or performance managed. Therefore instead of changing the institution, my friend decided to find a different one she’d be better suited to. In this instance, the business lost the talent my friend has, they’ve also lost out because they’ve kept this other woman in the business who’s clearly toxic and won’t change and will repeat the behaviours to affect so many others… not to mention the other things are affected by this that affects staff retention and engagement, productivity, innovation and profitability.

Avoid interaction where possible, if you feel triggered, or if it is truly detrimental to your ability to perform and feel good in your role. Or if you’re feeling strong and like you’re still able to be true to you, do the very opposite. Spend more time with them, be friends them, to make sure you understand their next move and counter it as needed. Get strategic and clever about how you interact with them when it comes to work and other things you have to share in the workplace. Call me to talk and to make sure you’re not blindsided by something they say or do. This is a ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ approach. And it’s important to watch your back but also to not get sucked in to then be manipulated in the process.

Above all, continue to stand in your power. Your delivery may need to be tweaked, but consider them your lesson. Consider them a gift that has been given to you to learn how to remain authentic, stay strong and to teach you how to deal with, and overcome the adversity that they present… all while still being able to stand in your power and be true to yourself. If you have slipups along the way, recognise that it’s okay. Forgive yourself, rectify your behaviour and continue on. Just make sure you don’t lose yourself along the way. We all need to help one another change institutions for the better to make them psychologically safe. We can’t run away and give in, or give up, but we also can’t put ourselves in harms way either.

Consider that maybe they’ve been put in your path for a reason. They are a hurdle to overcome on the path of you getting to know yourself and maintaining truth with yourself to hold your power and be affective, influential and they’re testing the person you want to be.

This also comes out as people pleasing and fearing the repercussions of saying things like ‘no’ or ‘not at the minute’, so you say ‘yes’ to everything, and you’re unable to set necessary boundaries with people and also with the work because you fear what saying no might mean or how it may make you look. Or how they may choose to use that information to hurt you.

A really great exercise to do after doing the above, is to work out your hard no’s. What will you absolutely never tolerate. What sits in that category? Then what sits in the ‘shades of grey’ area? Where there will be exceptions more than rules and you’ll have to assess those individual events as you go? By identifying them ahead of time, you’ll be able to recognize them if or as they happen, and navigate them more easily than if you deal with them in retrospect.

Being and creating psychological safety is something that should be really important to you as you progress in life and you have more weight to carry. Consider the way people you employ, and therefore you are looking after their financial well-being as well as their work well-being. Consider yourself - like having clients and people that you work with that you need to not only nurture, but you also need to nurture your own well-being in order to truly and authentically serve them. Boundaries matter and need to exist – this is with anyone and everyone including family, friends, work, etc.

A great colleague of mine said recently, “there will be limitations to what you are happy to be flexible with, and what you are absolutely not happy to be flexible with”. The example we were talking about was “are you happy to purchase products and support tobacco farming”. My answer was “yes, provided they don’t use child labour”. He said “well there’s your limit, and we all have them at some level, it just differs what level that is”. That’s an extreme example, but you get the drift. You may be okay to work longer hours, or work late. But you may not be happy to work on a Sunday. These are all things that are going to be incredibly subjective to your values and your circumstances and where you feel psychologically unsafe, and where you feel your boundaries are being pushed.

Remain aware of your surroundings, and write down what you will and will not tolerate. Give each colleague or person in your life a score out of 10. Not to share with them, but so you have an awareness of your own level of psychological safety with that specific person and you can recognise events as they happen. Look after yourself first, remain true to you and remember that setting boundaries is important. Put your safety first and by doing so, you’ll help others’ do the same.

Have a great week my friends, see you soon.

Hey! Before you go, I always find reviews really helpful when looking for new information or insights…

I you’ve found this podcast valuable, please take a minute to write a quick review about what you’ve found most beneficial for you, so other people can benefit from your insights, and listen in too. I would LOVE that!

Also, if there are any topics you’d like me to cover specifically about life coaching or the life coaching industry, visit to contact me. Thanks for joining and I’ll see you in the next episode of Do I Need A Life Coach?!

Please note, this transcription may not be exact.

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