In these unusual and unsettling times, how do we offer our clients wellbeing, stability and growth? The Psychological Safety Index offers a way forward
By Lindsay Wittenberg
Our world seems to become more unpredictable with every passing day. Standing for, or up for, a value, an approach, a philosophy or an initiative is thus becoming increasingly complex. It looks to me harder for leaders to make well-founded, courageous judgments and decisions because the environment is becoming more complex, masked by simple or simplistic right-or-wrong messaging.
Covid-19 is still a very live threat – and the theme of safety (physical, psychological, emotional and economic) is emerging increasingly often in my interactions with clients. People seem to be working harder than ever, feeling more pressured by uncertainty, anxiety and urgent new ways of working, and becoming increasingly tired and less resourced. Some of my clients seem unsettled, yearning for a sense of predictability to be able to plan, calibrate and evaluate their work.
Into this scenario comes the concept of psychological safety as an enabler of wellbeing, stability and growth, as an anchor and a source of agility and creativity, for both individual and team. Professor Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth (Wiley, 2018), has developed the Psychological Safety Index (PSI) as a result of 20 years’ research. She defines psychological safety as “the belief that you won’t be punished, humiliated or ignored for speaking up with a concern, a question or a new idea”: in other words, a belief that you’re safe.
The PSI highlights that when psychological safety is present, people experience a greater sense of trust and freedom to release thinking that could take a team onwards in its development journey, to flag errors and assumptions, to build confidence, and even to challenge the ideas of seniors.
I’ve been privileged to use the PSI with the young, vibrant and unusually self-aware team at R&D Physio as part of its team development journey, and it’s enabled me to reflect further on my role as coach.
My work with R&D illuminated both the leader’s perspective and team members’ willingness to share actively and proactively in building psychological safety. Our work together enabled for me the humbling perspective that, on the one hand, much of what was needed from me was simply to be deeply present as a respectful witness – bringing into relief both what was already there that was positive, nourishing and safe, and the scope for different kinds and degrees of risk to propel this business further forward.
My own sense of psychological safety in this context, especially given the differences between the team’s ethnicities and ages and my own, helped to create for me a sense of flow which felt very resourcing.
In another context, Coaching at Work editor Liz Hall mentioned Coaching through Covid in the July/August issue. The programme offers pro-bono coaching to NHS and care workers. Psychological safety is woven into its fabric and ethos: high-quality coaches who maintain psychological safety in the coaching encounter, safety for the coaches in terms of reflective practice groups and trauma and wellbeing support, light-touch process, and high degrees of trust, inclusivity and transparency, and compassion. The safety is two-way.
As coaches we enter our clients’ systems, albeit temporarily. As Covid-19, and the fear and anxiety it entails, tracks its unpredictable way round the globe, we need all the sources of safety we can get.
- Lindsay Wittenberg is director of Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd. She is an executive coach who specialises in authentic leadership, career development and
cross-cultural coaching www.lindsaywittenberg.co.uk