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Psychological Safety: Trusting Me, Trusting You

Feb 19, 2020 10:00:00 AM

Trusting myself and others is part of my life-long learning. Feeling safe inside myself, at times, requires telling myself that I’m okay and equipped to handle what comes next. For me, self-coaching or soothing myself, has been an on-again, off-again practice for more than twenty years. The need to calm myself started because of panic attacks. The first one came out of nowhere, surprising me when I was driving down the interstate. The panic attacks started during a difficult time in my life and prompted me to learn how to settle my breathing and heart rate by telling myself I was going to be fine. 

Since then, I have learned that being proactive about self care is key to keeping the panic attacks a thing of the past but sometimes I forget the importance of things like exercise, diet, and sleep!

Not long ago, in an instant, I was like a deer caught in the headlights, hesitating and second guessing myself. Fortunately, I didn’t have a panic attack, but it did remind me how important it is to be consistent with self-care and I have made a real effort to make time for myself.  I’m also reminded of the need to practice self-compassion so that I can recover quickly when fear has me in its hold. Trusting myself and trusting others requires knowing what it takes to create healthy relationships. As leaders, we have a responsibility to know the elements of building and maintaining healthy workplace relationships. One of those elements is ensuring psychological safety. 

Psychological Safety in the workplace is not the norm at all, according to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, so for those organizations who harness its power, it’s a huge competitive advantage. When an individual feels Psychological Safety at work, they demonstrate it by being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, “I screwed that up,” and asking for help when in over their head. The behaviors needed to challenge the status quo and accelerate learning, creativity, and innovation are possible when individuals trust themselves, each other, and the organization’s culture. People must feel safe enough to risk vulnerability and failure for the sake of achieving something more.

People who work in high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement and 29% more satisfaction with their lives. According to HBR, 55% of managers feel that low trust is a threat to their organization’s growth but don’t know how to remove the threat.

Dr. Duane Tway defines trust as the state of readiness for unguarded interaction with someone or something. He asserts that trust is a construct based on three contributing factors:

  • capacity for trusting (based on past experiences)
  • perception of competence (self and perceived efficacy)
  • perception of intentions (history and intuition)

Building trust is a dynamic process that requires decisiveness rather than impulsivity. Blind trust means taking uncalculated risk and the possibility of extreme consequences. In today’s rapid fire, fast paced, multi-tasking environment is it even possible to build real trust despite the many constraints? I believe the answer is yes, and the good news is it’s not complicated, the bad news is it also requires learning how to build relationships with people who may have very different needs and expectations than you.

What Can Leaders Do to Build Trust?

There is plenty of research that speaks in the abstraction about what leaders can do to build trust, but this leaves an important element out of the equation. Tway tells us that trust is impacted by an individual’s past experiences and their own set of internal beliefs about what it means to be safe. This means that each relationship is unique, because we each have an internal landscape, or a world that others can visit, but only if they are invited.

A first step for leaders to gain entrance into another’s world, is to engage in a conversation about what productive communication entails. This is a two-way dialogue where the leader asks, rather than assumes how the other likes to engage, receive feedback, and learn about successes and setbacks. Each of us communicates based on innate traits, past experiences, and situational context. Leaders can thoughtfully build trust by being curious about the unique landscape that exists for each of their teammates. Meta communication requires discussions about what effective communication looks like from both perspectives and opens the door to visit the others internal world. Leaders who invite others in and involve them in co-creating how the relationship will work, and then live-in to those agreements, show themselves to  be trustworthy.  These leaders contribute to developing a culture of trust.

In Xponents program, Creating Collaborative Partnerships, we have developed a model to facilitate having productive conversations at work.  The results make this approach worth exploring.  

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Deb Siverson

Deb Siverson is the owner and founder of Xponents. She completed her Masters in Organizational Leadership from University of Colorado-Boulder. Deb is the author of the book, "The Cycle of Transformation: igniting organizational change through the leader coach."

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