Ask the everywoman Experts: ‘I don’t feel psychologically safe at work’

psychological safety

Three experts advise an everywomanNetwork member who asks how she can better cope with a lack of psychological safety at work.


An everywomanNetwork member writes...

I’ve been in my job for a couple of years and enjoy what I do, however I find the office culture difficult to negotiate. Judgement, criticism and impatience seem to be used as motivation a lot of the time from managers, which makes me reticent to speak up about things, take risks or sometimes even share ideas in meetings. I know I am not alone in this; colleagues have also discussed their concerns with me. Things need to change but I'm not senior enough to drive that change — and create the kind of environment in which people feel safe to question, explore and grow. What can I do to work better within it, and perhaps even influence it for the better?



Alina AddisonAlthough some cultures can undoubtedly be toxic and psychologically unsafe, it all starts with self, says emotional intelligence expert and coach Alina Addison.

‘A place in which people feel psychologically safe is one where people are willing to take interpersonal risks – speaking up, making mistakes or sharing creative ideas. ‘We judge ourselves by our intention and we judge others by their behaviour’ is a quote by Steve Covey that I use with all my clients. And while you’re hearing criticism or impatience, that may well not be the intention on the other side. This is where I’d love to challenge you: How do you know? How many times do you try to put up creative ideas in meetings? As an EQ coach, I say to people, ‘There is no failure, just feedback’. So, how are you hearing someone's feedback? Are you hearing it as judgment, or receiving it in the spirit that someone had the courage to give you that feedback?

‘You also say colleagues have discussed concerns with you, so, what is the collective responsibility there? You don’t want to have little silos of colleagues discussing the business culture between them, and actually contaminating the situation with a lot of negativity because nobody is courageous enough to talk about it beyond that. Psychological safety is impossible without emotional intelligence and it's up to every single one of us to be aware of what our part is. Psychological safety or EQ is about eliminating social conflict, where people are afraid of speaking up, but encouraging intellectual conflict where people feel safe to say ‘I disagree with you’ and the other person can ask why and you can have a conversation about that. But the courage must come on both sides. And confidence is the consequence of courage. Where can you feel safe to take two per cent more risk in speaking up with some of those colleagues that you feel criticism or judgement from? You need to start small, in order to then create a ripple effect and to take some responsibility for that culture — because you’re part of it.’

Alina Addison is founder of Adaptaa, an executive coaching and leadership development consultancy specialising in emotional intelligence. She is also an everywoman associate trainer.


What the executive coach says...

Tony Shafar‘De-personalise it and get genuinely curious as to what's really going on’, says executive performance coach Tony Shafar. ‘When people are being impatient or critical, try not to worry about the judgements — and instead just seek to understand, which in turn means you are not judging or critisising your managers back. The more you can depersonalise it, the more curious you will get. You mention [in your longer email that] you work in a creative sector, and if there is a culture of impatience or criticism, I’d be curious as to the reason for the inconsistency, because creativity means taking risks and therefore, you're less likely to get it right every time. It would be good to talk to your managers about how the business sees its culture; does it really want creativity and for people to come up with different ideas, because when they then share ideas that are not right there is criticism around it. So, what is causing that downward pressure, as opposed to everyone embracing the creative process?

‘People also often feel uncomfortable taking risks or sharing creative ideas because their thinking is that of right or wrong. If you come from an angle of, ‘Okay, here's some thoughts and it would be really good to get your perspective’, then you’ve started a conversation and you’re not so worried around whether it's right or wrong because you're not saying it's right or wrong. It’s also important not to be wedded to the belief that just because you’re more junior you can't change anything. You have an opinion and a perspective that’s equally valid, irrespective of whether you are junior or senior. If the business is very hierarchical, you can feel reluctant to question, but if you can think about culture change less from your perspective, and more from the broader company perspective — and your strong belief that the culture needs to be improved — then that could benefit everyone.‘

Tony Shafar is an executive coach specialising in mindset who works with senior professionals helping them to get clarity, overcome challenges and gain confidence. 


What the team-building expert says...

Alison BracketStart by looking at what is safe to do and experiment with, and what is in your control in order to try and show there is an alternative way of working, says Alison Bracket, founder of team building consultancy Bracket. ‘You said that there are other people that feel the same, which means there’s an option to make a change and some shifts among your peers. Are there situations where you could work with your peers — without the managers that seem to be driving this culture — and can you introduce more collaborative ways of working in those situations to start making a shift and experiment in making the environment safer among yourselves? When you do that it’s going to have an impact on your performance and also alter what happens when you interact with your managers and with each other.


‘Or is there a time when you can lead part of a meeting — and run that in a more collaborative way? If no one speaks and is fearful in the rest of the meeting, but they are engaged and enjoy this part because you’re asking questions and getting their input, then managers are likely to notice this. In both cases, they might then ask, ‘What’s going on? I'm curious about that?’ — or they could just continue as they are and not be interested. If it is the latter, then further down the line there will have to be some self-reflection on how much this is impacting your mental health and whether this is, in fact, the right environment for you. You say you enjoy your job, but are you really in a place in which you can express yourself? And how much of this is infringing on your personal values. It’s also about knowing how much you can shift, because the act of trying to shift a culture on your own can be exhausting. In the end, be clear with yourself that there does need to be a point where something changes for the better — or you need to move on.’

Alison Coward is the founder of Bracket, a consultancy that helps teams to build high-performing, collaborative cultures and author of ‘A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops’.


Do you have a career dilemma you’d like help with? Get in touch via contact@everywoman.com with ‘Ask the experts’ in the subject line.