The problem with psychological safety

Graphic design of a gold heart inside a red heart outline, nestled in a safe, enclosed white shellProblem?! How could psychological safety be a problem?!

In the same way any tool can be used incorrectly, or even harmfully: when it’s misunderstood and mis-applied.

Three examples.

Is it a check-box / eye-roll item?

Your employees know when a term is being used without substance behind it. And they’ll roll their eyes at any statement not backed up with action and change.

You cannot mandate psychological safety by saying so. You must define actions and create accountability; you must walk the talk.

Is it a synonym for the comfort zone?

I’ve seen instances where “psychological safety” is interpreted as “the right to feel comfortable.”

That’s not, or shouldn’t be, the intent.

The true intent is to develop a culture where speaking up, saying hard things, discussing options, naming problems, is the norm, because people know they won’t be whacked and shut down for doing so.

Is it a resting place for the privileged?

Those of us who, through no fault or design of our own, have been born into privilege – whether by skin color, gender, social or economic standing, and so on – can feel pretty unsafe when pushed to acknowledge the challenges faced by people not born into privilege.

Meanwhile, marginalized people have every reason to feel like psychological safety isn’t meant for them.

Which is why I say that psychological safety can quickly become a resting place for the privileged, who may claim they don’t feel “safe” when faced with situations or issues that challenge their perceived rights, their perceived place within the heirarchy, their belief systems, or their unconscious (or all-too-conscious) bias.

Creating a culture where everyone, no matter who they are, can feel good about their options for speaking up or taking action is hard.

But oh, the places your company will go!


Thanks to Dr. Seuss for the quote I adapted.

And if you’re curious about what might be possible in your company, let’s talk about it. Contact me and we’ll set a time.  I promise: I’m safe! 😊