5. Let’s talk about Psychological safety

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmonson Harvard Business School Professor defines psychological safety as:

“ Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” 

How many of us can relate to this quote? 

You might be sitting in a senior meeting and want to ask a question or make a comment but your heart starts to pound and your stomach starts to churn and you suddenly feel very vulnerable. This is usually the point where the negative self-talk starts to creep in; that little voice that says what if they think my question is stupid? What if they laugh at me? I am not as senior as the others and who am I to comment?

Have you ever been in a meeting where there was no discussion or debate and no-one asked questions and decisions were made, only for the discussion to take place after the meeting had finished and the participants are walking away?

Does this sound familiar? If we are honest we have all been there including me. So how can you as a leader develop psychological safety within your team so that team members feel empowered and not scared to speak up or ask questions? Leadership starts with you and leading by example.

Lead by example

A leader sets the culture for the team that they lead. As a nurse leader, you can’t possibly know everything and for your staff to hear you say “I don’t know” but I will find out and come back to you helps you to develop a culture where questions can be asked and solutions found without fear of speaking up. Equally for the team to hear you ask questions and being curious about something also fosters curiosity within a team which is a healthy team trait to have. An important part of a nurse leaders role is to have regular meetings with your senior nursing staff. This is also an opportunity to talk through any service issues as a team and to invite team members to come up with solutions. How you have these conversations will set a culture of openness. 

Open door policy

Do you have an open-door policy for your team members that is truly an open door and not just lip service?  It is something that you will often hear people say but don’t apply in practice. As a new leader, you need to articulate to your team how team communication will work to foster an environment that supports psychological safety.

Having an open-door policy is also a good way of letting your team know that they can come and knock on your door to ask questions and that you are open to this. It also works the other way in that you can go and seek staff out when you have a question or need some clarification. A useful tip to having an open-door approach is to decide where in the day you will have your door open. For example; an hour at the beginning of the day and an hour at the end of the day, you will need to decide and then communicate your open door hours to the rest of your team.

Walking the floor

Some of the most valuable insights in my role as a leader came from walking the floor, listening and talking with staff. This is a great way to pick up issues before they become incidents. It creates opportunities to work with the team to put measures in place. This is something that staff really value that you have taken the time to ask and find out. It is useful to put a set day and time in the diary when you plan to walk the floor and talk to the staff. This way you can make sure that your good intentions didn’t get lost by meetings taking over instead. You will often discover things that you weren’t aware of and things that you can help with advice or direction that prevents patient complaints or incidents from occurring.

Admitting when you get it wrong

It is really important for the staff that you lead hearing you apologise when you get something wrong. This is one of those things that many leaders find uncomfortable yet it is probably one of the most important things you can do as a leader in supporting psychological safety. There will be times as leaders when under pressure we might jump to the wrong conclusions or respond in a way that is not helpful to the other person. We all need to have the ability to reflect on our actions and to find the person and say I’m sorry. This helps staff to see that you are human too and that it is ok to make mistakes and to be open about those mistakes.

Develop active listening 

The ability to listen is a core part of a nurses role. Stephen Covey talks about 5 levels of listening;

5) Empathetic listening – it is at this level that true listening occurs. The listener is able to empathise and put themselves in the other person’s shoes and to listen without judgment.

4) Attentive listening – At this level, the person gives their attention and listens but they are not listening at an empathy level as they stop short of putting themselves in the other person’s shoes and are still listening through their own filters and passing judgement.

3) Selective listening-  At this level, the person only listens to the parts that they want to hear and they may say “What is your point?”, may interrupt or finish the sentence for the person talking.

2) Pretend to listen- The listener gives you the impression that they are listening but the non-verbal communication tells you otherwise. They are not giving you their full attention.

1) Ignoring- You are talking but you are in no doubt that the person is not listening.

In order to create a safe psychological working, environment listening has to occur at level 5 empathetic listening. Listening at level 5  means that you are truly actively listening to someone, not interrupting or thinking of an answer before they have finished or passing judgement but trying to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective.

Creating an environment for active listening

In order to listen actively as a leader, you need to ensure that you create a safe space away from the hustle and bustle of the ward for the active listening to occur. Make sure that how you are seated lends itself to active listening. For example, sitting at the same level as the person that you are listening to. This sends the message that you are both equal and you are not listening from a position of power. The chairs must be comfortable, just a minor detail, but makes a difference if you are to listen to someone actively. There must be no interruptions and your phone should be on silent and that there is a do not disturb sign on your door. You can’t be present and actively listening if you are always interrupted.

Invitation to observe

These are just small examples of how to begin to create an environment of psychological safety, where staff feel safe, they trust you and know that you have their back and that they feel listened to and know that they can ask questions without judgement.

I invite you over the next week to observe how people listen and how meetings are conducted and reflect on how you will do things differently as a leader.

How good are your listening skills find out here https://www.thoughtco.com/listening-test-are-you-a-good-listener-31656?

I am trained as a coach to listen deeply to what my clients are saying. I help clients to achieve their goals by asking questions that help them to find their solutions from within.

Click here for my contact details to book a free 30-minute discovery call.