What if it feels too risky to speak up at a meeting?

We all have hopes, ideas, and ambitions for our working lives. Most of us want to contribute and be validated by professional and organisational success. But what if the reality is very different? What if the work culture enables uncollaborative behaviours and creates personal fear? The often subtle realities of power dynamics at work can chip away at mental wellbeing as well as organisational performance. We need to create more enabling cultures and that starts at the top.

Leaders Must Enable Their People to Overcome Fears of Speaking Up

Ensuring that people feel safe to voice their opinions is the responsibility of leadership. The concept of psychological safety is a simple one but not always easily achieved. At work, it should not be unsafe to express a view, to challenge others, or to offer an unpopular opinion. There should be no personal risks or negative impacts for speaking honestly.
Successful cultures support speaking up and speaking out. Enlightened leaders work hard to do away with individuals’ hesitancy to discount the future by deciding the personal risk of a freely expressed opinion is too great. Imagine all the failed mergers, or flopped product launches which could have been prevented if psychological safety was the norm. Irrespective of other peculiarities of his leadership style, Elon Musk and other successful entrepreneurs place a premium on candour, encouraging employees to cut through the layers of hierarchy to share their thoughts directly with him. They recognise that organisations thrive when everyone gets to speak up when they have something to say.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is not about immunity to critical assessment and it’s not about everyone being liked. It is however, about an absence of fear. It requires the development of a culture where the need to gauge the interpersonal risk of being oneself and having an opinion does not have to be weighed on a daily basis. In general, psychological safety is the bedrock of high performing teams and empowering cultures. Organisations where candour is encouraged and where mistakes are understood as high learning opportunities tend to have high performance and positive employee engagement.

I have encountered many instances where senior team members do not feel psychologically safe. I have seen the personal and organisational impacts at first hand. It has a deep impact. I am mindful of two instances.

The first was a very capable female leader who had an ExCom colleague with a habit of mansplaining her own responsibilities to her in one-to-one meetings. He also talked over her repeatedly in leadership meetings and passively resisted any initiatives for which she had responsibility. I first encountered this lady in a team coaching assignment and saw the behaviours of her ExCom colleague at first hand. The impacts of the behaviour emerged in further one-to-one sessions with the lady in question and others. Two other females on the ExCom also highlighted the personal impact of aggressive behaviours from this individual. Thankfully, over time we were able to diplomatically surface these behaviours in group working sessions within the ExCom. Once surfaced, it became easier to address general and more specific behaviours and norms expected of all ExCom team members. The work we did on improving collective team dynamics brought errant behaviours into the spotlight and they were addressed appropriately.

The other case was a coaching client who felt bullied by a colleague at work. His confidence, self-belief and trust in his employer organisation were damaged. He was ready to leave the organisation which he had loved until his new boss was recruited into the business. This was an incredibly isolating experience for the individual concerned. It impacted his mood; his mental wellbeing and his family life was impacted. After numerous one to one engagements, the individual gained the confidence and self-belief to begin to assert himself in a series of small steps at work. He also developed clear perspectives on his employer organisations values and attitudes toward certain staff. Ultimately, a highly qualified and engaged accountant left the organisation believing that his employer did not care about him, or the errant behaviours impacting his performance. A good employee was allowed to walk away from the business.

Psychological Safety Should Lead to Effective Employee Engagement

When we feel valued in an organisation, when we feel listened to, we tend to become more invested in the organisation and perhaps slower to leave.

I have worked with many leaders who feel threatened by toxic cultures. We have worked on tools and approaches they can use to avoid getting into unhealthy conflict and diminishing power struggles. These range from internal dialogue and personal mindset focus, developing colleague support, being direct and addressing power imbalances. However, if organisations don’t recognise what inappropriate leadership behaviours are, then it may be worthwhile taking your skills and experience elsewhere.

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