The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed prolonged isolation and compounded stress, knocking us out of our equilibrium and uprooting our sense of belonging. Just ask my colleague in Melbourne, Australia who has endured 262 days of lockdown. If that weren’t enough, add the eruption of racial tensions to the mix.
As the crisis continues, the demand curve for psychological safety rockets up. Look at the Google search history on the term. This is no passing fad; interest in psychological safety as a concept is now giving way to demand for the condition. Employees now see it as a term of employment, not only in North America and Western Europe, but in other parts of the world too. For example, in my recent conversations with HR leaders in Europe, Latin America, Australia, and Asia-pacific, they report that psychological safety has become their highest human capital priority.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety refers to an environment of rewarded vulnerability. In social units, human beings engage in four basic types of vulnerable behavior—1. connecting, 2. learning, 3. contributing, and 4. challenging. Without rewarded vulnerability, you can’t bring your whole self to work, learn with intellectual bravery, contribute at full capacity, or challenge the status quo. Psychological safety is the primary enabling condition that allows a team to create a sanctuary of inclusion and an incubator of innovation.
In the current context, three forces are exploding the current demand for psychological safety:
First, The Vulnerability of Self-Disclosure
When the outside world exerts unusual trauma on your life, the last thing you want is more of it from your work environment. Not long ago, I was in a virtual meeting with a talented colleague. She happened to be a single mother in quarantine in a high-rise apartment building in the middle of a large city. As her three screaming school-age children and their dog came in and out of the frame, my colleague was clearly at her wits end. Her personal and professional lives were bleeding into each other and there was little she could do about it. Pandemic conditions were forcing an unprecedented level of self-disclosure.
The question at that point was whether her colleagues, her team, and her organization would create conditions that would add to or subtract from the trauma. The answer turns on one question: Will her acts of vulnerability be rewarded or punished? In this case, thankfully, her coworkers nurtured psychological safety by rewarding her vulnerability. They validated her, acknowledged the difficulty of the situation, offloaded some tasks, and offered more flexibility.
Second, Disillusionment with Social Hierarchy
A second force driving demand for psychological safety is a desire to abandon the social hierarchy. Many millennials, for example, are choosing autonomy and contribution over status and position. They want a career web, not a career ladder. They want mobility—not just upward mobility—in which lateral moves are just as rewarding and celebrated as vertical moves. Many report that nearly two years of pandemic conditions have neutralized a desire …….