22 April 2022

Psychological Safety: Easier Said than Done

Knowing is only the first step. Doing takes practice.

Katy Craig
Katy Craig Chief of Staff LinkedIn

I wrote a post recently about the four stages of psychological safety and how fundamental it is for innovation. To recap, the four stages are inclusion, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. If people aren’t psychologically safe, they’re going to struggle to innovate. But knowing this is not enough. Knowing that we must foster inclusion and make people feel safe to learn, contribute, and challenge team mates is only part of the solution. I focused on language in my last post as one way to practice psychological safety, and know this is a good place to start because of some recent and surprising conversations I have had.

I was wearing my “professor” hat in these first examples. I teach cybersecurity to graduate students and was holding “office hours” for a cloud security class. When asked by a student whether assignments would be accepted after the posted deadline, I responded with, “have you read the syllabus?” I thought my response was perfectly reasonable since we were halfway through Week 1. “Read the syllabus” was my first direction to the class, and they’re graduate students.


The student later dropped my course after telling me via email that my response had “humiliated” them, especially because there were other students present. I’ve determined that answering a question with another question, especially one that puts the onus on the asker is not psychologically safe. The expectation that they “should” have known the answer had they read the syllabus challenged and confronted them–and made them feel shame. Note I am not arguing whether it is my responsibility to teach the student self-sufficiency or initiative or strength. I’m only addressing the language I used in this exchange–my response to the student’s question. In retrospect, I could have answered the question directly, then pointed out that the information is in the Syllabus for future reference and maybe retained the student in the class (where I may have had more opportunities to build those other, intangible qualities).

In another class, a student reported that they did not have the technology available to complete the lab and deliver the report, the day a major deliverable was due. I responded with “You should have told me earlier your system couldn’t support the lab.”

Wrong again.

That student accused me of discrimination. Looking back, I think that leading with “should” only made my response personal, and land like a judgement or attack on the student. I meant to convey that I could have proposed more options, had I been given more time, but never got the chance because my “should” made the student defensive. The student said they felt I was blaming and targeting them. I am not arguing whether it’s my job to teach them responsibility or resilience, I’m focusing on the language I used in this situation. In retrospect, responding with “these are the options available given the schedule and technology constraints” may have been more psychologically safe. A note: Psychological safety goes two ways, and the second approach would have been safer for both of us. Being accused of discrimination did not feel safe to me.

In my final example, my brother pointed out that my language is hostile. In fact, he claims I don’t ask when I’m questioning him. To him, I make assumptions stated in declarations. When I think I’m asking “do you think about cost?” he pointed out that I actually said, “you don’t consider cost.” I was not aware that my questions were not actually couched as questions! Additionally, he helped me to see that some of my questions were doomed to offend because they were loaded with implication and expectations. “Why didn’t you…” instead of “did you…?” or “have you…?”

I’m learning that language is a direct means for promoting or inhibiting psychological safety. But knowing about it isn’t nearly enough to be good at it. You have to practice it, intentionally, and mindfully, with the people in your lives. For me, this means slowing down, choosing my responses carefully, and recognizing that in all conversations, power is a factor. If I have the perceived power or authority, then I need to take more responsibility for providing the safety required. Leadership is language, and how and when we choose to speak goes a long way in providing a safe environment for vulnerability and trust.

Connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts. How do you foster psychological safety with language?

If you have any questions, or would like to discuss this topic in more detail, feel free to contact us and we would be happy to schedule some time to chat about how Aquia can help you and your organization.


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