People Management - Managing Teams Based on Needs for Psychological Safety
People Management - Managing Teams Based on Needs for Psychological Safety
People Management - Managing Teams Based on Needs for Psychological Safety

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Leadership

People Management: Managing Teams Based on Needs for Psychological Safety

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You’ve lived this story before. People Management is an important matter for the company and, by the and of this article, you’ll have understood all about it.  Keep reading! 

A creative director, a COO and an HR leader at a major fashion chain walk into a boardroom. A large, brightly colored graph is projected onto a screen detailing Q2 performance. Changes in innovation, clients, staffing, sales, and social following are displayed in bold swaths of sweeping blues, yellows and oranges. Each of the three executives sees the same message illustrated, yet each has a vastly different reaction.

  • The creative director beams at the improvement in innovation. “Three new evening wear lines were designed!” She can’t contain her pleasure and initiates high fives with her two colleagues.  
  • The head of operations takes pause at the flat sales numbers. She’s disappointed that the creative director is celebrating new ideas, yet completely missing the danger in lackluster revenue. She insists they get serious and inspect what led to the shortfall so they can learn from their mistakes.
  • The HR leader saw future potential in the new hires on the sales team dedicated to getting clothing into new client stores in California. She was encouraged by the creative director’s celebration and frustrated by what she perceived as the COO’s miopic view of the details, focusing solely on what’s wrong rather than what’s right.

Sound familiar? 

I mean, when were you not baffled by someone else’s conflicting opinion of a situation you knew with certainty to be a specific way?  

It happens day in and day out – at work, at home, ordering dinner at a restaurant… We’re all built to see and prefer things our way, which is good and can also stir up trouble. 

On one hand, dependability is a healthy attribute. It helps us consistently contribute something of specific value to a project, or a relationship. On the other hand, if we rely solely on the values and perspectives we appreciate, we run the risk of creating a lack of self-awareness and a lack of empathy, which can be devastating in a work environment. 

Appreciating different perspectives is a skill, a muscle that needs flexing. It takes practice – regular and intentional practice – to increase your capacity in this area. People managers who learn how to do this will flourish.

People management is challenging enough under predictable circumstances. Yet, human nature, preferences, behaviors under pressure and interactive styles are anything but foreseeable. Leaders tasked with ensuring the psychological safety of whole teams can feel helpless in today’s unstable work environments. 

When a leader is charged with managing the wellbeing of an organic and multifaceted group of people such as captured in the snapshot of folks in the above boardroom, the task can seem darned near impossible.  

Is there hope?

What is Psychological Safety in People Management?

Let’s take a giant step back from the doom and gloom and exhale. Some perspective and context on the concept might offer some assurance.    

A psychologically safe work environment is widely accepted as an organization where people feel safe speaking up, being vulnerable, and taking risks on behalf of the company. It’s a place where people are encouraged to share opinions and exchange even the most contradicting ideas. It’s a place where “high-school” behaviors like gossip and backstabbing are not tolerated and the diverse viewpoints of a team are celebrated, seen as the seeds of inventiveness.

While HR leaders and company heads seem to me to be familiar with this terminology, many employees may not be. I recently completed a qualitative market research project to gauge interest in an automated solution for emotional onboarding. Tangentially, as I probed into the deeper problems behind onboarding snafus, I discovered that the vast majority of employees aren’t acquainted with the term “psychological safety.” Still, even though the terminology isn’t familiar, we found that the feeling of insecurity evoked when this sentiment isn’t present at the office is a scourge to overall company success.

Amy Edmonson and Her Work

Amy Edmonson, Author and Harvard Business School professor speaks and writes extensively on psychological safety in the workplace. In her recent Harvard Business Review piece, Edmonson outlines what psychological safety looks like in a hybrid workforce. 

She addresses the importance of creating a secure environment in which our staff can discuss personal and health-related needs as it pertains to work locations and schedules – a new reality in a post-pandemic world.  

In her 2018 book, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” Edmonson espouses the gold baked into enterprises that establish themselves as hubs of harmony and compassion, where ideas and insights of diverse natures are welcomed and expected. In her book, she establishes the foundations of what it means to be a truly safe workplace today – to be a humming bastion of holistic organizational health.

What Does Success in People Management Look Like?

Humans aren’t fans of discomfort. Especially interpersonal discomfort. We’ve become a society that not only dislikes unpleasant interactions, we actively avoid them and self-soothe in unhealthy ways. In fact, Bravely, a workforce culture company reports that 70% of people avoid difficult conversations with their boss, colleagues and direct reports.  

Success in people management requires that leaders and managers face these stressful work relationship situations without shying away from uncomfortable interactions.  When managers model creative, compassionate problem solving rather than allowing undignified behavior to go unaddressed at work, their staff feels more secure and more committed.

You’ll know you’re doing a good job creating a safe environment when you notice:

  • An uptick in employee participation at meetings
  • Staff openly seeking out suggestions and feedback on their work
  • A decline in a victim mindset and an increase in people taking responsibility for mistakes
  • More people openly challenging ideas and viewpoints
  • An openness toward asking for help

What Are Companies Doing to Foster Better People Management?

Psychological safety is abuzz in the US and abroad. I’ve noticed an acceleration in this trend among my own corporate clients and within my international professional networks. 

Leaders around the world are investing significant resources toward getting this right. And for good reason. Competition for outstanding talent is high. Good places to work will attract and retain the best employees. Additionally, leaders are noticing the business benefits of nurturing their people. The ROI is real.

Common workplace psychological safety practices in people management include some pretty standard strategies. Most of these tactics are quite easy to implement. 

While they are terrific as a place to start, I’m personally not a particular fan of one size fits all efforts in education and wellbeing.  I prefer an individualized approach because it dignifies the different ways we interact with stress and the divergent circumstances that make us feel unsafe.  I’ll share my ideas with you below.

Among the more common efforts companies today are making you’ll likely find:

  • More transparent communication around how decisions are made
  • Encouragement and even rewards for staff offering dissenting opinions 
  • People managers listening with a genuine interest in learning more about what individuals think
  • Increased consistency – leaders doing what they say they’re going to do so the team learns they can truly depend on you
  • Expanded humility, leaders admitting when they’ve made a mistake so staff feels safe following suit

Why One Size Fits All People Management Falls Short

While the sentiment of the above efforts is sound, to build a truly empathetic work experience, people managers have to understand the following about their teams:

  • How their staff emotionally interacts with the concepts of: 
    • Challenging their boss’s and teammates’ opinions 
    • Asking a superior for help
    • Changes to a “traditional” manager/staff relationship that feel improperly balanced
  • Which new behaviors are difficult for each person on the team to tolerate and why
  • How to notice when each staff member is feeling stress in reaction to these initiatives
  • How to compassionately help bridge these emotional gaps with their individual team members so employees build more tolerance for the new behaviors

Why Is It Important?

When we don’t dignify the way someone on our team naturally engages with new information, expectations, with people, or with projects, we cause harm. For example, it’s important to note that there are five distinct ways people will naturally react to challenging the opinions of their superiors. The five ways range on a trajectory from absolutely loving it to, “I’d rather go live on a deserted island for the rest of my life.” To be successful, people managers must know this information about their teams.

If we require a behavior of our staff that feels abhorrent to them in a sweeping effort to build psychological safety, we end up doing the complete opposite. In other words, we create a climate where creativity, innovation and engagement suffer and unwanted turnover soars. That’s not to say that we can’t learn to value and have tolerance for challenging others’ ideas, but a great leader wants to know exactly how to compassionately nurture people to take on tasks that initially feel difficult.  This is the true definition of a people manager creating a psychologically safe workplace.  

It calls for people managers to take on a growth mindset, reframing work challenges as opportunities to grow and improve.  Therefore, many leaders become reactive in the face of challenges in the office, becoming fixed and prone to blame and criticism.

To achieve a growth mindset, people managers need to become really good at three things:

  1. Recognizing the early signs of stress and burnout in themselves and their team
  2. Predicting potential interpersonal challenges among their people
  3. Applying soft listening skills when it comes to creative problem solving so they can really hear what’s beneath people’s expressions of pain and get to the root cause of the challenge

Your People Management Crib Sheet

People managers who are good at creating a psychologically safe environment for diverse groups of people consistently inspire more from their teams. 

To do this well, it’s important to remember that people management is a moving target. We all have different perceptions of the same information. We interact with our environments in unique and seemingly mysterious ways.  And to complicate matters, the vast majority of us are not self-aware. Even though 95% of people believe they are, an astonishing 12 – 15% of people truly are self-aware. 

The likelihood that your people managers are aware of their own reactive states, as well as those of their teams, is relatively low. Strong self-awareness will be key to successful people management. But, the good news is that everyone can learn this quickly and simply. Therefore, walk away with effective skills they can use right away to create their own more compassionate strategy for building psychological safety at work.

How To Learn About It?

The Five Archetypes is my assessment-based system of understanding and leveraging people’s unique gifts to optimize relationships and wellbeing at work. Leaders who use this method to create a psychologically safe environment, dramatically increase the speed and the efficacy by which they are able to understand and empathize with the diverse ways teams interact with each other, job expectations and with company culture.

I’ve developed this system to help companies customize training initiatives, personalize incentives, improve management skills and individualize communication efforts and onboarding.  

To get started creating a psychologically safe environment for your team, follow these three easy steps:

  1. You and your team take the Five Archetypes Assessment (takes about 10 minutes)
  2. When you get your results, notice which of the archetypes, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water or Wood, was your highest scoring type
  3. Ask your team to share their highest-scoring type with you (and share your scores and this article with them!)
  4. Look at the chart below to find your and your team members’ highest type. Check out the personalized information provided to quickly improve your own self-awareness, to increase clarity on what makes you and your team tick, and to gain insights into precisely how to make each type feel psychologically safe at work
  5. Oh – and did I say have fun with it?  I did?  Well, to me that’s the most important part!

Fire

  • Natural tendencies – warm, receptive, intuitive, hopeful, inspiring
  • Needs for safety – recognition, sensation, contact, intimacy
  • Fears – disconnect, loss of love, can’t tolerate repetition, boredom, or being ignored
  • Signs of Stress – panic, overstimulation, confusion, anxiety

Earth

  • Natural tendencies – empathetic, caring, peacemaker, concentration, contemplation
  • Needs for safety – being involved, needed, togetherness, predictability, not to be the center of attention
  • Fears – not fitting in, separation, letting people down, can’t tolerate disunity
  • Signs of Stress – insecure, overthinking, worry, indecisive, disorganized

Metal

  • Natural Tendencies – evaluation, sequencing, order, perfection, beauty, routine
  • Needs for safety – definition, structure, discipline, principle, discretion
  • Fears – intensity, chaos, boundaries being invaded, being wrong, making a mistake
  • Signs of Stress – compulsive, disappointed, self-righteous, blaming, over-critical of self and others

Water

  • Natural Tendencies – insightful, peaceful, articulate, clever, introspective
  • Needs for safety – quiet, time to process, immersion, flexibility in routine
  • Fears – too much intimacy, vulnerability and talking, can’t tolerate small talk
  • Signs of Stress – hopelessness, fear, apathy, withdrawn, stubborn, negative

Wood

  • Natural Tendencies – Determination, motivating, trailblazer, courageous, charged, alert
  • Needs for safety – confidence, choices, challenge, goals, autonomy
  • Fears – judgment, confinement, loss of pride, not winning
  • Signs of Stress – anger, pushy, argumentative, impatient, restless, tense

Did you like this content? Learn how a business coach can help be a game-changer for entrepreneurs.

By Carey Rosen Davidson*, Author of The Five Archetypes:  Discover Your True Nature and Transform Your Life and Relationships

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