The "Psychological Safety Dip"​ Ticking Time Bomb

Warning: this is very long, very serious and not very positive but that’s because it is needed and because, if we understand the disastrous effects of our lack of people practice now we still have time to reverse them and emerge out of this a much better version of ourselves.

Everywhere you look around the world today, it seems like there’s an end in sight. Not a clear path as to how we’ll all live post this thing or really if we might have to live with it, but a conviction that we are approaching the end of the crisis. That’s incredibly good. 

Obviously, at this stage, the unknowns remain overwhelming and it’s impossible to predict what percentage of us who worked online, remotely, will continue to do so but some estimates claim the figure is close to 70%. In some ways that would be wonderful news, of course. As countless tomes and voices over the past few years have said of the knowledge economy, there has long been no real point for many of us to be in physical spaces together where the team would have accomplished the same to-do’s digitally, and so this was a welcomed forced transition to that in a sense. 

The way it has been done though may well haunt us for years with effects far further reaching than we can currently estimate in even the least optimistic of recession modelling exercises. 

Here’s what I fear: that the forced circumstances of our crisis will appear to have been manageable for hundreds of thousands of remote teams who will -rightfully- remain remote after the lockdown is lifted, whereas, in fact, the extreme drop in Psychological Safety they exhibit will prove to have been more detrimental to their performance than we can begin to imagine.

In other words, that by not having found ways to design and implement a true “people practice” in time, we have damaged pre-existent levels of positive team dynamics in teams irreversibly and we have failed to instil them in new ones, and that this damage will result in productivity drops that will be not only crippling for some companies, but as severe as to prove recession-enhancing overall. For anyone understanding the tight correlation between Psychological Safety and productivity, this is not a far-reaching fear.

If we return to the definition of Psychological Safety: the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, a common ability to always speak up and be vulnerable and open with each other, and a lack of impression management in a team that feels like a family - let’s critically evaluate who may have had this during this crisis. The answer while not exact is common sense: very few if any. 

If there is a case for any team to have been resilient enough to have performed precisely as well during this pandemic as they would have done before, it would have been those teams who were already working remotely before this, who had been doing so for considerable amounts of time and had had a chance to be accustomed to all the intricacies of digital work while focusing on their dynamic and team wellbeing. 

I put it to us that even there, where they had started with high levels of Psychological Safety, it has likely been severely affected by external pressures as well as levels of individual stress but despite that, in teams who had a blissfully open communication channel, these extreme circumstances may have well strengthened them after all. Although we would have seen a dip in their individual components such as their willingness to open up or their morale, for now, their resilience will shine through and their overall output won’t significantly suffer in the end. 

Needless to say, these types of fortunate teams are but a fraction of the overall amount of now-remote teams. 

For the rest of us, the shock of the transition coupled with the increased difficulty level of other life demands creeping in, as well as an intense job retention fear and a generalised sense of anxiety, have given rise to an extreme amount of impression management and that is highly damaging to the team’s Psychological Safety and therefore to its productivity.

With impression management being defined as the fear of appearing incompetent, ignorant, negative or intrusive in a workgroup situation, how much of it do we believe has sipped into the work of these teams in the past few months? I believe it to have been a disastrous amount. 

The first two of these, tightly coupled with our generalised impostor syndrome, have been exacerbated as no one wanted to appear not able or not knowing at a time like this, but the last two, a fear of appearing negative and, above all, a fear of appearing intrusive would have motivated many a moment when team members would stop themselves from being their authentic self. 

Take the fear of intrusion - even in well established and skilfully remote teams, the habit of asking deeply human questions and the ability to share deeply human emotions with the rest of the group, was hardly commonplace before the crisis as the EQ of various teams varied greatly, and its existence was never a historical prerequisite in the workplace.

In this climate though, the need to deeply relate has become infinitely more stringent for all teams in light of the pandemic and those who were unable to quickly find ways to open up deeply and connect intensely out of a fear of looking like they pry alongside this underdeveloped team EQ would have missed the opportunity to draw on the only soothing energy available: the power of recognising a shared reality. In other words those teams who couldn’t find the reserves of courage to “get personal” have missed a major trick in becoming compassionate by recognising the commonality of suffering which will reflect in their performance levels as it will deny them the opportunity to move as a cohesive unit in lieu of a collection of isolated and anxious individuals. 

When this layers on top of sheer fear of job loss, it’s little wonder why there is so much impression management going around and no one should be surprised at not having heard any dissenting voices, any questions raised, any constructive disagreements and no open speaking up in these teams lately. 

While speaking up, being open and authentic and avoiding impression management are the sine qua non conditions to productivity and high performance, a temporary suspension of these for the few months of this tragedy may arguably not have been fatal to most teams with the exception of those where big mistakes have silently happened because no one was willing to point them out, but by the same token a few months is a long time for habit formation and it is tremendously possible that these teams will learn this new group behaviour of not being open, which will undoubtedly sabotage any hope of success long term. 

So in short, I’m worried and anyone reading this should be too. Analyse your own behaviour. Have you valiantly voices all concerns, taken all opportunities for radical candour, have you brought yourself fully to the table? Have you always stayed intensely human and expressed your emotions even if negative and seen to it that others do so as well in your team? Have others done these things? Have you either had a team leader who was an empath and was skilled in fostering your team’s psychological safety or creating it or have you been that EQed team leader yourself? Has anyone kept a keen eye on spotting when impression management and fear-driven behaviour sipped in and dismantled it? Does your team now have a people practice? 

Sadly if the answers is “no” then you have a ticking time bomb on your hands, and even if a magic wand was waved and the world returned to its “before”, your performance will be anything but high and you will soon learn an unpleasant sudden lesson in the importance of Psychological Safety and having EQ in a team when your every KPI will falter and your results will reveal themselves as dismal. 

In tomorrow’s video we speak about some of these behaviours that we should look out for to prevent PS-related catastrophes, so look out for that, but meanwhile take a good hard look at your team and wonder how flexible, resilient, courageous, open, learning and engaged have they been and how many times have they stopped themselves from speaking up because the more you see it, the more you can help it and the better of a chance you stand to be high performing once again after this nightmare passes.

Stay safe, stay sane and stay productive. 


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