Psychological safety + culture: your true employee value proposition

Unleashed
7 min readJul 30, 2020

Unleashed’s People + Culture Partner Michaela Bartlam on why psychological safety is the key to unlocking great culture

An image of a life ring against a plain white background
Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

Want to know what gets me excited?! (and I think I’m speaking for the whole team at Unleashed too, actually!) It’s speaking with a founder or leader who truly understands the importance of the people in their organisation. It’s these founders and leaders who understand that a truly stellar Employer Value Proposition (EVP) is no longer a purely extrinsic collection of benefits, but a much more intrinsic form of ‘value’.

The golden thread that underpins this sense of value is your overall culture — what makes you, you is what will enable you to stand out from the crowd and speak directly to the people you’re going to want on your team. Specifically, a culture that supports your team’s wellbeing and enables individuals to do their best work is key to driving forward any business — and when you’ve done the hard work to create and nurture this culture — your EVP should focus on communicating that rather than the details of your pension scheme.

Simply put, there are leaders who get this, and those leaders often have a super modern approach to building company culture; they embrace a growth mindset and are a complete joy to work with.

Sounds like a dream, right?!

It is! However, sometimes those leaders, in their quest to create an enviable culture and build a team that’s happy and high performing get caught in the following leadership traps.

  • “I’m trying to implement a feedback culture, but no-one is feeding back”
  • “Radical Candour — I’ve heard it’s a thing and it works, but I can’t seem to embed it in my business.”
  • “It seems as though Ray Dalio is smashing it with this Idea Meritocracy stuff, but I can’t seem to make it work internally”

If I had one penny for every time I’ve heard one of these statements… I’d have almost a whole pound.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These approaches aren’t inherently bad — in fact, there’s a lot to be learnt from them (after all, who doesn’t want to have a team who are great at feeding back and making a company stronger!). My problem with them is that so often they’re implemented poorly, without consultation or any critical thinking about whether they would even work in the context of the existing culture. The results of these ‘experiments’ can be incredibly damaging and have a negative impact on your team. In turn, you run the risk of eroding what would otherwise sit at the core of your EVP and pissing off the people who should be your biggest advocates.

Let me paint a picture for you.

Imagine you invite your entire team to play a game. You know all the rules of the game. You’ve read a whole book about the game AND watched the TED talk. Your team, however, has never played before. Prior to the match, you’ve shared some of the rules with a few people during their 1:1s (perhaps the things that resonated the most with you when you first heard about the game.) You’ve even quoted a famous player in your All Hands meeting to get the team hyped about the game! Does that mean that when you get your team out on the pitch, they’re going to play well, be an effective team and have a good game?! Probably Definitely not.

If the picture I just painted feels like a familiar one, the advice I give is generally always to go back to the fundamentals, and if there is one thing that fundamentally underpins culture, it’s this… Psychological Safety.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety isbeing able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn, 1990)

If you haven’t laid the foundations for psychological safety within your team, you’re basically trying to run a marathon before having even learnt to walk. Without psychological safety you can forget having an inclusive culture or one in which the leadership team is trusted and viewed as inspirational. You can also prepare to struggle to retain people on the basis of the EVP you think is established for your team, and when guiding your business through difficult times.

Psychological Safety is the key to unlocking the culture you’ve been trying to build for years.

And it starts at the top. Managers and leaders who prioritise leading by listening, who are curious without judgement or blame, who give their teams the freedom to be authentic and don’t punish opinion, start to lay the building blocks of psychological safety. It’s this psychological safety that, in turn, creates an environment full of trust, respect + confidence; across teams and in ‘vertical’ management lines. In these environments, individuals feel empowered to be creative, innovative and to take intelligent risks without fear… now that’s a value proposition that is attractive! Once you’ve built these fundamentals, you’ll find your EVP easier to communicate and have a significantly happier team. Curiously (although perhaps unsurprisingly) all of these things lead to major company breakthroughs.

Nice — I’ve made my point, but what would an Unleashed blog be without some bloody brilliant practical advice that you can implement right now…

Here goes.

All Voices Have Value, So Listen

In environments that aren’t psychologically safe, meetings are typically dominated by the loudest voice or the most senior person at the table (especially right now whilst non-verbal cues are hindered by us all working remotely). If we want to really foster psychological safety as leaders, we need to re-think our meeting etiquette.

Consider letting people know that you want their input, thoughts or feedback in advance, and nominating someone to chair a meeting (you could go first, to demonstrate its effectiveness and set the standard — but then — step back!) to ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to contribute. Just remember — your team are human and ultimately, not everyone (especially to begin with) will feel comfortable voicing their opinions or concerns in a meeting in front of leaders or their peers — and that’s ok. Of course, we should always be aiming to create an environment where everyone, no matter how extroverted or introverted their natural style may be, feels comfortable expressing themselves in a group setting. You need to meet people where they’re at. The diversity we have within our team means that everyone will have varying motivations, tendencies and anxieties, and to ensure that EVERYONE feels comfortable sharing and feeding back, you need to make sure that you’re creating multiple channels to suit all of those individuals. Perhaps allow people to go away and ponder something before sharing their opinion, encourage people to share during their 1:1s, or find ways that people can voice their opinions/concerns anonymously. Just think about all those juicy perspectives + valuable insights you’ll gain!

Champion Behaviour over Results

This is simple. Recognise team-work. Recognise Honesty. Recognise kindness, curiosity and individuals who live and breath your company values. It will help you to set the gold standard for behaviour internally, and state very clearly your expectations for how teams should work together. So start calling out good behaviour, in 1:1s, in Slack channels but also publicly (assuming that you know your team member will appreciate this — not everyone feels comfortable receiving public recognition). Allow team members to nominate their colleagues who have really gone above and beyond, or positively contributed to your culture. But through all of this, remember that (again!) often the ‘loudest voices’ receive more recognition by virtue of just being ‘louder’, so it’s vital that you and your managers are diligent about seeing the ‘unseen’ values demonstration. The results will follow, your team will feel more psychologically safe to embody your values, challenge the norm, take smart risks — and if they don’t? Then you’ll know it’s a process problem, not a person problem and you can learn from it and move on, without attributing blame.

Own your Vulnerability

“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” — Patrick Lencioni. What a wise guy and what wise words!

Honesty from a leader, even if centred around that leader’s own vulnerability, is a sure-fire way to create the trust, respect and confidence that I mentioned earlier. And I don’t mean ‘oversharing to evoke sympathy and avoid accountability’’ or ‘here’s everything on my plate, but don’t worry, the business is fine’ because those approaches will only breed distress and distrust. I mean, honestly and empathetically showing your own vulnerability as a leader. After all, you are human and you’re not immune to the challenges that life throws at you — so don’t pretend to be.

And last, but certainly not least, get your team’s help

Don’t assume what your team needs to feel psychologically safe — instead, start as you mean to go on — ask the difficult question and encourage honest conversation with teams and individuals.

  • What do you need to feel psychologically safe?
  • What do you need to feel empowered and safe giving feedback and sharing your ideas?
  • What do we need from our team/peers, to feel comfortable voicing opinions or challenging the norm?
  • What’s going to stand in the way of us all being honest with one another?
  • And finally, What does support from me look like, to really help us embed this culture and hold us all accountable?

Listen, actively and well. Question with a ‘deliberate naivety’, by which I mean, with pure empathy and curiosity to ensure you really understand someone’s opinion, without jumping in and making them feel attacked or judged for giving it.

Leaders who create psychological safety create cultures that people genuinely love to be a part of. Focus on this — and your true value proposition will be easy to see.

Want more tangible tips + implementable advice on all things People + Culture from expert generalists with over 100 years of combined experience scaling startups? Then shimmy on over to our website + sign up for Unleashed Thinking, our monthly newsletter.

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