We reached the final sessions of a group coaching programme for high-potential female execs in the last couple of weeks. The session was entitled, ‘Endings’. It was an opportunity for the participants to reflect on what they’d learned about themselves and their colleagues during the 6 months; what they’d valued, what they’d found discomforting, what they’d found helpful and unhelpful.
It was striking that a high number referred explicitly to the psychological safety that had been present in their group. They characterised it variously as a ‘sanctuary’, as an ‘oasis’ and as a ‘place where they could be vulnerable without fearing the consequences’. They talked about the care and compassion that they had felt, and that they had received.
The participants also talked about making breakthroughs in their self-awareness, in their understanding of how some habitual patterns don’t always serve them. Some of them talked about the programme having been ‘career-changing’ or even ‘life-changing’. They talked about conversations that were really uncomfortable and challenging. They reflected upon tears and difficulty in tackling things that they’d always previously avoided.
I think that the group coaching programme was a profound and lovely experience for all of us. But, I would suggest that, without the foundation of psychological safety, that breakthrough and growth would not have happened. Safety, as in an absence of fear, is often a priceless thing in itself but it is also prerequisite for stretching ourselves, disrupting comfortable, habitual patterns and to challenging ourselves and others to make leaps in our awareness, our confidence and our personal power.
With our 2020 world being so discombobulated, much has been written about psychological safety. Amy Edmondson defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
The whole planet has been in a collective stress response to a common threat. Many, many people have been more adrenalised than usual and are experiencing the hyper-vigilance that comes when our sympathetic nervous system is continually triggered. The value of safety in a threatening world has never been more obvious.
It’s worth bearing in mind that our stress response (sympathetic nervous system) is a brilliant piece of evolutionary design equipping us to deal with existential threats such as a prowling sabre-toothed tiger. It is less effective at helping us deal with the multiple stressors that now form part of our everyday. Emails from our boss, wifi outages, unhappy partner/children/friends, global pandemics, etc are sources of stress activation for which our autonomic nervous system was not designed.
A consequence of this constant activation is that the brilliant orchestration of the sympathetic response (fight or flight) can be perpetually present. Adrenaline surging through our system, our heart rate climbing, our blood vessels dilating to supply our muscles, sugar releasing from our liver as extra fuel, are all just a part of the instantaneous physiological impact that turbo-charges our body in response to fear. Hyper-vigilance that other people and situations constitute a threat then ensues which can lead to a self-propelling cycle of anxiety.
So, what are the benefits of psychological safety? Firstly, it obviously provides a relief, an abatement from this pattern of continual activation. A place of calm where we can relax and reactivate our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest). Our parasympathetic system controls many of our essential, ‘steady-state’ physiological processes; our digestion (including fat metabolisation), our sleep, our immune system, our sex-drive, to name but a few.
Constantly triggering our stress response can cause long-term issues with these core functions and thus the ability to feel safe and calm is crucial to our long-term wellbeing. Therefore, finding peace by feeling safe is an end in itself. It is a fundamental requirement for the healthy functioning of our body and mind.
But what is perhaps less obvious is that psychological safety is also a necessary foundation for us to be able to grow, to be able to stretch ourselves and learn. In other words, stress is an active impairment to emotional intelligence. When we feel under threat, our cognition and our emotional regulation are both negatively affected. Hence our ability to observe ourselves, to spot the habitual patterns that don’t work for us and then start experimenting with ways of disrupting those unhelpful patterns are all diminished when we are in the midst of a stress response.
That’s not to say the path of growth and self-learning is a comfortable process. The ‘voluntary suffering’ of developing our self-awareness can feel discombobulating in its own right. However, because it is voluntary, we need to develop a ‘comfort with the discomfort’ that challenge and stretch can bring. Developing that ‘window of tolerance’ is more or less impossible when our sympathetic response is activated.
Safety is also a necessary foundation for us to be able to trust, collaborate and empathise with others. It seems self-evident that, if our threat-perception is amplified, it will be difficult to appreciate the ideas, the perspectives and, perhaps most importantly, the feedback of other people. Yet this feedback is a vital part of the fuel which enables us to grow.
So, psychological safety is not just about a relief of fear (although that is enormously beneficial). Being able to feel enough trust and confidence so that we can embrace feelings of discomfort are essential in our ongoing growth, our engagement and collaboration with others.