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26 June 2019

Finding the courage to speak up

Written by
Kathrin O'Sullivan

The term of “psychological safety” was first introduced by organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard. She defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. Teams where everyone can show up fully and feel accepted and respected. While I was at Google, the People Analytics group did extensive and rigorous research into this topic, looked at the performance of over 180 teams in engineering and commercial roles, and found that psychological safety mattered A LOT for team effectiveness.  A New York Times article as well as a very detailed and well thought out resource site followed, and voila, the term psychological safety became a big buzzword in the business world, if it wasn’t already. The holy grail that leads to high performing teams! Who wouldn’t want that? 

I’m curious about why we see so little traction though. At least I haven’t noticed much more evidence on us becoming more psychologically safe in our work groups. My day to day experience working with leaders in organizations is a constant reminder of how many people are not comfortable with showing up fully. Holding back can create misery when we let the fear of the potential negative consequences to self-image, status, and career rule us. We have a lot of data and advice on how to create more psychological safety.  Amy Edmondson distills it down to 3 things individuals can do to foster psychological safety in her TEDxTalk, Gallup presents us a 4 question methodology, Google shares its secret sauce in 5 buckets, HBR presents a 6 step approach. I’m sure if I gave it some thought I could come up with the magic 7 (or find someone who’s already done that). But I’d rather leave this to the experts, and we already have more than enough maps that are well researched, practical, and helpful. Yet as so often in life, the map is not the territory.

It is HARD to create psychological safety, especially when the stakes feel high. Psychological safety requires vulnerability, and practicing vulnerability is difficult when we’re not feeling safe.  

Do any of the following sound familiar?

A: I want to speak up in this meeting because I have a very important point. But the person who advocates for something very different is going to have input to my performance review next week, so how can I possibly challenge them? 

B: I have a crazy but brilliant idea which requires quite a bit of upfront investment. I think it has the potential for massive pay off. But I want to be seen as someone who is responsible and a good steward of our resources. I think I best let my idea go. 

C: I’ve seen the CEO behave really out of line in the last few leadership team meetings. I know we’re all under pressure but this is making things way worse. Yet I could never tell the person with all the power to calm down.

In each of these statements, there is a desire to say or do something which may be of benefit for an individual, a team, or an organization. Most of all, speaking up would help the person really show up and model for others how to build the conditions for more psychological safety by practicing a courageous act. Yet there is an assumption that the potential negative consequences will far outweigh the benefits. Fear is stopping us from not making the move that would actually increase psychological safety, and maybe even eliminate or at least reduce fear over time. It’s a balancing feedback loop. The system is perfectly designed to keep itself stable. Let’s rather not speak up. The status quo is familiar and gives us an illusion of safety. When really we’re undermining psychological safety every time we have something important to say and then censor ourselves. We don’t want to mess with power structures, implicit rules, or our deeply held assumptions about what will work and what won’t. And we’re paying a high price for it: we’re withholding our truth from the world.

I’m going to say something controversial: Since psychological safety is now such an omnipresent concept, it has become much easier to blame something outside of ourselves for what could also be seen as a lack of courage on our part. “My team doesn’t have psychological safety and as long as the leader doesn’t do anything about it,  I have to hold back” is much easier to reconcile than “I really should have said something in this meeting. I wish I had been more brave.” I often hear some version of this: “My team is not safe and as long as we don’t make any significant changes, I’m not prepared to share any dissenting opinions.” I also know a lot of leaders are struggling with fostering psychological safety in their teams, despite all the good advice that’s out there free for all. Yes, the leader sets the tone. And, it’s not the leader’s job alone.

So what do I suggest?

First of all, I want to be clear about my opinion on the research and publicity into psychological safety on teams. It is important and valuable. It creates awareness, a shared framework and language, accountability, and great ideas about what to do to foster it. 

Yet when psychological safety is low to start with, we need more people who can find the courage in themselves to speak up. We can cultivate this courage. Here are a few ideas how:

Set aside 10 minutes of uninterrupted time. Take a few deep breaths. Find that sweet spot where you’re grounded and upright, and relaxed at the same time. Get really still. Feel your own presence for a minute and try to make room for a little more spaciousness in you and around you. It may help to relax your shoulders, neck, and jaw.  

Then find the topic that you’d like to speak more openly about with someone on your team.  Or bring a situation to mind where you recently held back because you were afraid of the potential consequences. 

Ask yourself: What are my assumptions about this situation? And how could I be wrong?

In example A, where the assumption is that I may get dinged in my performance review for challenging someone’s point of view, it could be something like: If I bring up my point respectfully, they may actually appreciate it and see me as more of a thought leader, which may even help my performance review. Or: They probably wouldn’t hold it against me anyway, but on the small chance that they do, it’s more important to me at this time to practice speaking up.

So, what we’re trying to do here is create a shift from the part of you that’s fearful or hesitant, to embracing more perspectives by getting present and questioning the assumptions you are holding about the situation.

Try this with your own example. What are you discovering as you do this? Write it down.

Then ask yourself: What are my feelings about this situation? And how do they help or hinder my desire to express myself more fully? 

In example B, this could look like: I’m excited about my idea. The thought of what it could lead to fills me with joy, positive energy, and alignment with my purpose. It instantly makes my whole body feel more alive.  Part of me is also worried that it may not work out, in which case people will think I have failed. That’s scary and makes me feel small and deflated. 

As you stay with all the emotions that arise, you may get more of the clarity you need. It often helps to put one hand on your heart center as your doing this, which is positioned directly above the heart, slightly to the left at the center of your chest.

As I’m sensing into this more, I’m noticing that it’s even more scary to not express myself. I’m worried that I may forever regret it if I don’t speak up now. I will speak up. It’s not that hard actually now that I’m feeling into it from a grounded place.

What are you learning as you get more present with your feelings and sensations? Write it down. 

Now, ask yourself: How could I be a little more courageous in this situation and show up more fully? Where in my body can I access more of my power? 

In example C, it could play out like this:

The CEO’s outbursts are inappropriate, and they can be scary. As I’m grounding myself and feel my presence, I’m noticing that I’ve got what it takes to not take it personally.  I can let it go. I can feel strength in my spine and courage in my belly. From this place, I can imagine holding my ground, while interacting with the CEO in a respectful way and making a request for more collaboration with the team. 

What are you learning about yourself and your access to your own inner strength? Write it down.

Now look at your notes. You could use them to help you create one or more mini interventions to try the next time you want to speak up but are holding back. What could you experiment with to help you build capacity to stand in your power and show up more fearlessly?

This could be anything from grounding yourself, feeling your presence, maintaining more eye contact with a person that intimidates you, making a request that’s bigger than what you’d usually ask for, respectfully calling someone out on something, etc. It’s about making a choiceful intervention and doing something different than holding back, being passive aggressive, or having a watercooler complaining session after the fact, etc. (you know what your default is). It’s all about finding out what works for you and what doesn’t. You won’t know until you try.

It’s a call for all of us to engage with and cultivate our ability to show up fully, even if we don’t feel we have perfect psychological safety scores on our team.  In this process, we may get a lot more than what we’ve bargained for: a deeper knowing of ourselves, more insight into interpersonal dynamics around us, and understanding how much we can contribute to creating more psychological safety with just a few small moves. 


One thought on “Finding the courage to speak up”

  1. Craig says:

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing. Groups I work with in the Federal government to cultivate psychological safety often talk about the importance of “starting where you are.” Even if this is scary, it enables more authenticity the Self we bring to the space, which in turn affects the space itself through the responses of others. A beautiful and transformative cycle begins!

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