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Creating Psychological Safety at Work isn’t Just About Avoiding a Workplace Bullying Complaint

When employment relationships take a turn, there can often feel like there is no way back. However, mediation can be a powerful tool in rehabilitating working relationships. To do this, the mediator creates an environment which allows people to be both authentic and to express themselves in ways that are appropriate and do not result in recrimination or further negative conflict. Instead of the parties being locked into defending positions and holding themselves back, they feel comfortable expressing themselves and are open to other viewpoints. It’s about feeling safe enough to be vulnerable.

The concept of safety extends well beyond the mediation table. A particularly telling quote from an employment case in America is that the law is a ceiling and not a floor; that it is not a civility code. The implication being that some behaviours are simply a part of life. No matter that they are unpleasant and unkind and ultimately damaging to the employment relationship.

Behaviour in the workplace is key to whether employees are happy and productive. A recent article in the New York Times confirms this. Google, in its quest to build the perfect work team, found that there were two shared behaviours that make a group work:
1. everyone contributes equally to conversation; and
2. all team members had high degrees of social sensitivity, meaning that they were skilled at picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues to determine how team members were feeling.

Both of these elements make up a sense of “psychological safety”. Psychological safety creates “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

As one team member put it, “[n]o one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy… [W]e want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labour.”

Contrast this with complaints of workplace bullying. These are common and difficult to unpick. With new New Zealand health and safety regulations, there is also an increased focus on avoiding workplace bullying. However, this is not just a compliance issue; it is a business harmony and growth issue.

The way we come across to others is an elaborate construction of both overt and subtle behaviours which can be born from malicious or virtuous places. Those behaviours are then interpreted through a variety of known and unknown filters by those on the receiving end, and which translate into perceptions of motivation and intent.

Whether behaviour is bullying, or someone is classified as a bully, will depend on multiple factors. Bullying behaviour includes a desire to exert power and control; a complete lack of understanding of other people’s feelings; and the use of intimidating behaviour (both subtle and overt) which intends to cause fear and distress. It is not generally a one-off action, but it is pervasive. In New Zealand, WorkSafe has a number of tools to help businesses and employees understand and recognise bullying (including that which violates the law) and the effects of bullying.

Whether someone’s behaviour violates the law is the floor. The ceiling (and beyond) is the cultivation of a healthy, productive team through a set of inclusive and empathetic behaviours. If we start from the perspective that highly functioning teams are ones in which everyone is able to contribute equally and in which team members easily pick up on the emotional temperature of other team members, then it is easy to see why contrary behaviours can be perceived as bullying. It is difference between feeling safe enough to be vulnerable and feeling unsafe, hyper-aware, and guarded.

Consider a manager who is tasked with a compliance initiative. Depending on how the requirements are voiced, and how they are responded to, a legitimate business need can quickly become something very different and unpleasant for all involved.

How you would respond to a process that included:
• consultative, thoughtful communication that considers all views, but makes clear what the requirements are;
• a supportive environment, tools, and education/skills that makes it possible for businesses to achieve realistic tasks and goals; and
• the ability and tools to “read the room” and understand how people are feeling, coupled with processes and a culture that make people feel comfortable enough to express concern and personal doubt.

What about a very different process that included:
• dictatorial edicts in which participants are not allowed to ask questions, or if they do, they feel belittled, targeted as a troublemaker, or cut off/interrupted;
• an environment that sets participants and the business up for failure by creating tasks that are not grounded in reality, provides no upskilling (if needed), and is unsupportive in terms of tools and working environment. The team may be admonished for not meeting unachievable targets. Subtle hints about job security may be used as a way to either push the team harder to hammer home the reality of the situation. The manager may be frozen out and the team deliberately chooses not to participate;
• the participants have little ability to understand what each is feeling or thinking and there are no processes or tools to assist in gaining that understanding.
The first process fosters psychological safety. The second process thwarts safety, may create bullying situations, and most certainly will stall growth and shared vision.

Creating psychological safety isn’t just about avoiding a workplace bullying complaint. It’s about setting up your people and your business for growth and success.



Jennifer Mahony

Jennifer Mahony, Juris Doctor, Emory University School of Law, Associate member of AMINZ, Senior Resolution Practitioner of FairWay Resolution Limited Jennifer is a seasoned workplace investigator, employment litigation attorney, adjudicator, and dispute resolution specialist. She worked as a mediator with the Fulton County Landlord/Tenant Court in the United States for two years… MORE >

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