Some time ago John Lee asked me a great question, one that I think every leader should be able to answer:
I'm realizing how crucial psychological safety is in the process of change. What are some helpful tactics on creating safe zones?
In my coaching practice I work with senior leaders who are often guiding their organizations through periods of rapid growth and sweeping change, so this is a topic that comes up regularly in conversations with clients. As I've noted before, change is hard, and safety is important, but how do leaders actually create the safety that's necessary to support change in their organizations? A good place to start is by reviewing David Rock's SCARF model. An acronym standing for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness, SCARF identifies the potential sources of "social threat"--interpersonal experiences to which we respond as if they posed a literal threat to our physical safety.
When we encounter one of these situations we undergo a "threat response," commonly known as a "fight, flight or freeze response," triggering a cascading series of physiological and psychological events. When we interpret a situation as threatening on some level, certain neurotransmitters are released (notably adrenaline and cortisol), and our heart rate and blood pressure increase, along with a host of other responses that vary across individuals, and we enter a distressed emotional state which we typically experience as anxiety, fear, or anger.
This heightened state of emotional and physiological arousal serves a useful purpose when we're truly facing a threat to our actual safety--we're primed to make fast decisions and to take rapid, forceful action. But for these same reasons it can result in counterproductive behavior in the face of a social threat. The problem is that when we're in the grip of a threat response we're cognitively impaired, and we don't process information as accurately. We may be primed to act quickly and forcefully, but we're also likely to misinterpret interpersonal cues, misjudge others' motives and intentions, and respond far too strongly than is useful.
This has important implications for the workplace, especially when people need to act quickly and collaboratively to overcome challenges. In this context one of a leader's most important tasks is to minimize the risk of social threat, and the SCARF model provides a useful way to understand how leaders can inadvertently trigger these threats and what we might do differently to establish the appropriate level of safety.
Note that creating maximum safety isn't the goal--modest and limited amounts of stress can be helpful. But a full-blown threat response inevitably hurts performance and undermines effectiveness, and once it's triggered it can take a great deal of time and energy to return to a calm, focused state of mind. It's far more efficient to avoid it in the first place.
So what can we do? Let's use Rock's SCARF model as a guide:
When we encounter someone of higher status, we're more likely to experience a threat response, so leaders need to pay close attention to our deployment of status markers. This includes anything that conveys our differentiation, ranging from literal status symbols, such as a private office, to more ephemeral behaviors, such as interrupting someone, or sitting at the head of the table in a meeting. At times it can be useful or even necessary for leaders to heighten the status gap between ourselves and others, but in many instances it's important to do just the opposite and diminish that gap, particular if the goal is to increase others' sense of safety.
When we're less certain about the outcome of a situation, we're more likely to experience a threat response. By definition periods of change in an organization are characterized by greater degrees of uncertainty, and new responsibilities, new roles, new relationships, even new office space can all diminish a sense of safety and heighten feelings of anxiety. Looming in the background is the possibility that jobs may be eliminated or that the organization itself may be at risk--the ultimate uncertainty. In these circumstances leaders need to be attuned to the information asymmetry that accompanies any differentiated role. We may not be certain about the future, but we very likely have more information at our disposal that allows us to feel less threatened or anxious. At the very least, we know much more about our own intentions than others do. While not all information can be shared with everyone, consider what can be shared, and how we might be more transparent about our plans.
When we feel less autonomous or free to choose, we're more likely to experience a threat response. Here, too, the asymmetry between a leader's level of autonomy and the freedom of action enjoyed by those around us is critical. Leaders are never simply free to act as we choose, of course, and every leader operates under a set of constraints. But what leaders often fail to appreciate is that our own behavior and differentiation can have a significant impact on the autonomy enjoyed by those around us. As Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky has noted, "the words of those with power loom large over those with less power." While leaders at times need to act in opposition to the will of others, reliance on hierarchical power to compel compliance should always be a last resort. But the greater risk isn't that we abuse our explicit authority as leaders--it's that we inadvertently diminish others' autonomy (and thus their sense of safety) by failing to grasp the extent of our implicit influence. Leaders need to pay close attention to how we communicate, even (especially) when we think we're just expressing a preference.
When we encounter someone we perceive as unrelated to us--i.e. not a member of our social group--we're more likely to experience a threat response. The unconscious process of assessing others and our sense of connection with them begins immediately--within 1/10 of a second--and it's often affected by factors beyond our control, such as race or even facial structure. Another factor that's relevant in this context is a leader's differentiation--simply being in a hierarchical relationship can create a sense of social distance and disconnection. Because our feelings of relatedness with others are so strongly affected by factors that we can't control, it's important for leaders to build relationships and create connections with those around us through the factors that we can control. From the very start of every working relationship, leaders need to look for ways to establish a sense that we are members of the same social group--in many national and organizational cultures, this is one of the primary purposes of small talk. But this work can't be deferred until we're facing a challenge, or it will rightly be perceived as expedient and insincere and have little or no impact--we have to pursue it consistently over time. And note that the point isn't to be "nice"--the purpose is to create a sense of shared identity so that during times of change and in other stressful circumstances people are less likely to experience a threat response.
When we believe something is unfair or unjust, we're more likely to experience a threat response. The dilemma here is that a leader's actions will often be perceived by someone as unfair or unjust in some way--this is an unavoidable consequence of leadership, and at times there's simply no way to reconcile conflicting points of view. But in my experience people feel an even greater sense of injustice in the absence of an open dialogue; we may not feel that it's necessary to get our way, but we do feel that it's necessary to have our say. So when we feel that we've been given an opportunity to voice our opinion and to be heard, we're more willing to accept an outcome that's not aligned with out preferences. The key for leaders is to make enough time and space for sufficient dialogue and resist the impulse to maximize efficiency. A related dynamic here is that leaders often assume that the intentions behind our actions are obvious to others, when in fact they may be anything but; being clear and explicit about our intentions can help mitigate perceptions of unfairness and increase others' sense of safety.
As with so many of the issues I discuss with clients, the concepts above are easy to grasp and difficult to put into practice. What makes all of this work even more difficult is that when we're in a leadership role we often lack perspective on our own behavior and its impact on others; we fail to sense the ways that we may inadvertently diminish others' sense of safety and trigger a threat response. The best way to combat this is to build a feedback-rich culture, to make feedback less stressful (for the recipients and the givers), and to explicitly welcome it ourselves.
Photo by Virginia State Parks. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.