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Performative Psychological Safety

Why it's harmful to our workplaces and what we can do instead

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Psychological safety exists when our teams feel included, comfortable to voice opinions without fear of being embarrassed or punished, and safe to challenge the status quo.

When the team feels free to be themselves, make mistakes, and share opinions at work (even the unpopular ones), then psychological safety will thrive in your organization’s ecosystem.  

Psychological safety does not happen by accident, but by design.

When psychological safety does NOT exist in the workplace, it negatively affects how our teams learn and work together, our ability to problem solve, and can be a recipe for toxicity.

We know what psychological safety IS, but I think it’s important to also talk about what it ISN’T- more specifically when a false sense of PS is created.

How Performative Psychological Safety shows up at work

Have you ever been to a work meeting that has been branded as a  “team forum” or “town hall,” but then it turns out to be anything but?

It feels like workplace catfishing.

Opposing ideas are shut down, team members are interrupted, and people who are voicing opinions are described as “combative,” “antagonistic,” or “not a team player.” Then the meeting facilitator congratulates themselves for the open conversations you just had and considers the box checked!

This is a PS FAIL!

Or the manager who says “my door is always open” and then puts a lot of effort into making themselves UNavailable and avoids having difficult conversations.

It’s not these behaviors or the individuals themselves that need to be “fixed,” but the entire system that tells us this is the norm in the corporate world, and to expect otherwise is unrealistic and not beneficial.

We buy into the idea that things like psychological safety don’t really matter at work, and caring about people in our organizations is considered “unprofessional” and a weakness vs a strength. This is the “but we’ve always done it this way” effect.

So if you are in a leadership role and have engaged in these performative behaviors I am here to say, it’s not you, it’s US.

WHY IT’S HARMFUL

It’s not just that psychological safety is necessary for a thriving work culture, it’s that when it doesn’t exist, or worse yet, you are FAKING it, that it can be harmful to the team and therefor the business or organization.

When performative psychological safety is happening, it means that leadership thinks PS is important enough to fake, but not important enough to actually build. That creates high levels of distrust that can lead to toxicity in our workplaces. Trust is the foundation of psychological safety, and performative behaviors create the exact opposite.

When the team doesn’t feel safe to be themselves and contribute, it sends the message that they don’t matter, and this is harmful to the mental health of the individuals who make up our teams.

Lack of PS can also lead to mistakes in the workplace, so when we talk about industries like health care and air travel, those mistakes can be deadly. When people are afraid to speak up at work, bad things can happen.

WHY DO WE DO IT

On the surface, creating a false sense of psychological safety may seem easier than building it for real. But think about all the effort it will take to put out fires and be constantly recruiting because your workplace is harmful.

With REAL psychological safety comes discomfort and conflict and our brains resist that, HARD. As humans it’s our instinct to protect ourselves.

But discomfort and conflict can be catalysts for positive change.

We are taught to combat conflict and embrace harmony and “positive vibes only” at work and in life. Conflict doesn’t have to be bad and fake harmony is DEFINITELY bad.

We also fake PS because we resist the discomfort of being honest with ourselves as leaders (either that PS is in fact, important to our team and our biz and it’s time to do hard things, and/or we lie to ourselves that it already exists when it really doesn’t).

People pleasing is another reason we might engage in performative PS. We want people to like us and think we are the cool boss that everyone can talk to, but we don’t follow through with authentic action.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD OF FAKING IT

True psychological safety requires intentional action. How do we create it within our teams and avoid the performative kind?

  1. Start by asking yourself hard questions. Have you engaged in performative PS with your team? If so, why? How has that been harmful? What can you start doing differently?
  2. Prioritize Psychological Safety and be willing to take risks. Think about what’s the most beneficial (not to mention the right thing to do) for your team and your organization: keeping yourself safe OR creating a work environment that includes psychological safety? Having real conversations can be uncomfortable, but if we don’t have them it will have negative effects on our culture. The first step is to prioritize PS and be willing to take the risks to achieve it.
  3. Mean what you say aka HONESTY. Being honest in business may feel like a radical concept. When you say “my door is always open” to the team, mean it or don’t say it.
  4. Follow through and follow up. This overlaps with #2, and that’s how important it is. Follow through with promises to communicate with team members, and also follow up afterwards. Many times things come up after a conversation, so create opportunities for those to be voiced and heard by following up.
  5. Practice having uncomfortable conversations (and recognize the value in them). Become “conflict positive” vs “conflict averse.” This means seeing conflict as a way to bring things into the light that may stay in the dark otherwise. Being “conflict positive” goes against our instincts, and that’s why it feels hard and requires practice. Ask real questions and listen to the answers, even if the answers aren’t things you want to hear.

Creating true psychological safety in our organizations with intentional action is a long game. It’s not a one-and-done box to be checked, but an ongoing process that requires consistent practice.

We can create something real, something NEW. Simply start from where you are.

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