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When rebuilding psychological safety, kindness counts

Build greater psychological safety on your team to help each individual navigate their unique challenges and to be their best. In times like these, basic kindness and compassion really count.

When rebuilding psychological safety, kindness counts
[elnariz / Adobe Stock]

The sustained uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic have had far-reaching effects on mental health. In a recent survey, over 45% of Americans aged 18 to 29 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. The effects of the pandemic have also further undermined psychological safety at work. The blurred boundaries of working from home have made it impossible to compartmentalize work and life the way many people did in years prior. Instead, every Zoom call was a window into a human being, along with the messy realities that come with that.

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At the same time, managers were cut off from a number of data sources critical to empathy and emotional intelligence. Body language and subtle emotional cues are much more difficult to read through a computer screen. If someone is having a bad day or difficulty balancing the needs of their family and work, it’s easier to fake it virtually rather than share authentically.

Because of the pandemic, managers were suddenly entrusted with a new set of responsibilities, including caring for the whole person, not just the employee. For some, this was an easy transition. For others, it was a very uncomfortable one. As described in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Having psychologically safe discussions around work-life balance issues is challenging because these topics are more likely to touch on deep-seated aspects of employees’ identity, values, and choices.”

While there are no easy answers, there are three things managers can do to support greater psychological safety on their teams, especially as many transition back into office spaces.

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1. DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS

What one person views as an inarguable fact—for example, collaboration is always better face-to-face—another might see as an outdated way of thinking. Don’t assume that your beliefs are everyone’s beliefs. Ask each of your direct reports what their ideal working model is, what unique challenges they’re facing, and how you can support them. Look for a middle ground instead of hard and fast rules.

2. CARE FOR EACH PERSON AS A UNIQUE INDIVIDUAL

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Even if you have known someone for many years, there are likely many aspects of their identity that are unfamiliar to you. Many of us—especially individuals from families of color—were taught to adopt a specific professional demeanor to blend in with the norms established in corporate organizations. To successfully do so requires dressing a certain way, restricting conversation to “professional” topics, and restricting the window into our real lives.

To break through this, managers need to “care personally,” one of the two tenets of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor model. When an individual believes their manager genuinely cares for them as a person and is invested in their success, the foundation for psychological safety is in place. Scott says, “It’s about finding time for real conversations; about getting to know each other at a human level; about learning what’s important to people.” Doing so requires that managers go first, demonstrating realness and vulnerability that signal it’s ok for others to do so as well.

3. PRACTICE DEEP LISTENING

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Deep listening is giving others your full and undivided attention. In a world full of screens, it’s become a rare event. When engaging with the members of your team, step away from your devices (unless you’re meeting on one, in which case put all the others away).

There is no greater tool for connection than simply listening with a true intent to understand. Don’t jump in and tell a story about yourself. Don’t try and solve their problems right away. Demonstrate non-verbal empathy and, when appropriate, recap what you heard and check for understanding. Listening is one of the key leadership practices that can increase psychological safety in organizations.

The last two years have been tough on everyone in different ways. Build greater psychological safety on your team to help each individual navigate their unique challenges and to be their best. In times like these, basic kindness and compassion really count.

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Shani Harmon is the co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This, which partners with forward-looking companies to transform how work gets done.

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