In our previous article about psychological safety, we talked about the Google study that deemed psychological safety as the number one factor in building an effective team, but the caveats of this statement are that 1. not every team works in the same universal environment and, perhaps a bit more obvious 2. not every team is working under the same parameters and conditions as Google teams do.
In thinking in the line of more militant and fast-paced corporate and athletic arenas, the questions then become the following: Why do I even need to care? Do you think I have the time for this?
These questions, though they might come across as brash and flippant, are living in valid territories. In terms of typical corporate management, much of the management happens off-stage/off-court and by that, I mean that much of the managing happens from behind desks and e-mails, or in boardrooms and car-rides. In these situations, the managing moments don’t necessarily have to come at high-stakes make or break moments; much of the time, this kind of managing comes in a structured and timelined fashion, i.e. weekly meetings or monthly follow-ups. In these scenarios, building in the cushion of psychological safety makes sense: there is time for the conversation to be happening on both ends, for both the manager and the employee to have a discourse and voice each of their sides. This is one spectrum of a working environment, but let’s look at the other end of the spectrum.
In thinking of the array of organizations that can exist, we often default to thinking about the cubicle/desk working structure where there are employees managed by managers who report to other managers but everyone kind of has a steady stream of tasks to work on. But what of those more militant-type organizations? With the obvious one being the military itself, when lower-ranking soldiers are first entering training and learning survival and combat skills that may very well make or break if they survive out in battle, is there room for that soldier to speak up to their commanding officer to say something along the lines of hey, I don’t like the way you’re speaking to me? That’s a loaded question, and it isn’t being posed in the framework that new recruits aren’t humans with feelings and perspectives but in the framework that when they’re out in a hot zone with gunfire and mortar shells raining upon them, no one is going to be asking how they’re doing.
For most of us reading this, the scenario of a warzone is out of our realm of experience, but it is a reality for many. To reign us in a little more, let us look at an athletic coach and their players. Unlike the meetings, debriefs and e-mails that might serve as management in average corporate-American culture, a coach’s role in management is happening frequently, consistently, and the feedback is just about immediate. A coach has their instruction on the player during practice, during game-time, and, sometimes, even off the court and out of the lockers. Where does psychological safety fit in here?
The line is drawn between fear and pressure. Is the player playing out of fear of being benched or cut? Do they have internal or external pressures driving them to compete? Getting an understanding of where your player stands on these benchmarks is a way to understand how psychological safety is pertinent to your organization. We all want players who are motivated to improve and to succeed; these types of people make for good players and team members, they’re on the lookout for roads to achieve. With a player already driven to compete, allowing them some comfortable space to move about and speak back to the coaches may not be a bad idea. But say you have a player who is comfortable with just being average or slightly above average, is that the kind of attitude that leads to championships? Most people would say it’s not. It’s these players comfortable with floating in place instead of swimming forward that might benefit from the extra push coaches can give, and that might mean a smaller bubble of psychological safety for that player. This seems harsh, but if there is no internal drive for the player, then there needs to be some extra compensation from the external side of things.
To extrapolate this back into the military world, the extreme of this is that the cushion for psychological safety is pushed aside because both fear and pressure are present in a soldier’s reality when they’re out in the field. The stakes aren’t just about getting a win for the team, it’s about keeping the team and themselves alive. The military sits on the end of the spectrum where the priority for psychological safety sits a few rungs lower on the ladder consider other more pressing factors. On the other hand, the corporate world can use psychological safety in an extended fashion from how an athletic team might. In the hiring process, understanding the internal and external pressures and motivations of the candidate can influence the discussion and need for psychological safety in the workplace. Furthermore, the same can be said about this discussion for already existing team members and getting a better understanding of how they can work with each other and their manager
The fine-print of talking about psychological safety is recognizing that it’s not a black and white issue of does it exist in your organization or does it not. The real question to wrestle with is to what extent does it exist and how deep does it cover? The threshold of it exists only as far as the leader of the organization is willing to explore it, and this threshold, as this article hopefully makes clear, varies depending on the people in the organization and, especially, the needs of the organization. There are many tools that can help an organization understand what bounds of psychological safety it needs to achieve, assessments being one of them. Regardless of these bounds and what levels may or may not be necessary, every organization should at least have the conversation of what these bounds should be.