Three thoughts about psychological safety and safe spaces
In the past 10 days, I've discussed the concept of 'psychological safety' and 'safe spaces' with about 25 people. From high school teachers to life coaches, from psychologists to improv actors, my interviewees have shed light on this concept and allowed three central ideas to emerge:
1—The intention-action gap is perceived as a lack of safety
2—There is a difference between explicit and implicit safety
3—Psychological safety not only condones risks, it demands them
There is a difference between explicit and implicit safety. I can tell you "this is a safe space" and lay down ground rules, specific conditions of participation in a group. But I can also design systems and environments that communicate some of those same ground rules implicitly. For example, I could either tell you: "We value feedback here," or I could send out a quick feedback form at the end of every class. This is what Elizabeth Galbut, our instructor in Leadership & Strategic Management has been doing. I have never delivered as much feedback or felt I had as much of a voice in other classes, despite verbal invitations to provide feedback.
I am interested in digging deeper into the kinds of conditions that require explicit mention versus the ways we can create psychological safety by modeling behavior or allowing our environment to inform our conversations. As long as the intention is clear, and everyone involved has the choice to buy into it, it would seem to me that implicit cues are more effective, because there is less chance of the gap mentioned above showing up.
The intention-action gap is unsafe. I am borrowing the term intention-action gap from behavioral science—it is often how applied behavioral science can make sure it is facilitating wanted behavior—but I am using "action" broadly. In a given setting, there may be an intention to create a space of psychological safety, but the extent to which that actually is built depends on the gap between that (often stated) intention and the actions of the system and individuals within it. Your boss may tell you she welcomes your feedback anytime, but if there is no process by which to deliver that feedback, or even worse, if there is a negative personal reaction to feedback, that stated intent loses value and power. There is an observable disconnect between what you've been told and what you've experienced, and that creates a lack of trust and thereby a lack of safety.
Psychological safety not only condones risks, it demands them. A clear dichotomy emerged in my conversations about safety. One type of safe space is about creating an isolated, protected, trigger-free environment in which to have certain kinds of sensitive conversations. It eliminates risk, and fosters a sort of static place apart from reality.
The kind of safe space I'm interested in is defined by Amy Edmonson as "climates in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves." In fact, when this environment is achieved, individuals perceive that the risk associated with admitting a mistake, asking a question, or revealing lack of knowledge, will not be met with a negative response. It is the ability to take these interpersonal risks and be vulnerable that contributes to the health of the group and it's ability to collaborate, innovate, and succeed.
This safe space is dynamic, edgy, and creative. It seems to me that this sort of environment can only arise by redirecting the focus of interactions from the people to the process. It's not about who is saying what, it's about trusting a certain process of asking questions, experimenting, and making mistakes. As long as there is a shared purpose (and perhaps this is one of the things that has to be explicit), the process provides psychological safety and guarantees an optimal product.