Monday, January 28, 2013

Designing a safe space for communication: second in a series

In my last post I discussed the importance of creating a safe space for communication as an important leadership practice, whether you are a front-line worker, a manager, or a senior executive. A critical component of developing strong relationships with others and a team-oriented work environment, psychological safety builds trust among and engages team members productively. Not every work culture embraces psychological safety, however, which is why it is important for leaders at all levels to know what they are up against (i.e. power dynamics) before setting upon this course. 

Once that dynamic is acknowledged, the leader needs to proceed to the next step: 

Step two: Designing a psychologically safe space
Designing a psychologically safe space does not happen naturally: it takes faith, time, and clear communication on behalf of the leader. The latter of the three is critical as expectations and group ground-rules should be considered, discussed and agreed upon.

A discussion like this can seem like a strange one, as many just assume and follow the common practices of organization culture (which are oftentimes harmful to psychological space). You, as a leader, should initiate the discussion to create this space.

To begin, ask the group for permission to address the topic, and articulate the notion that groups can oftentimes be waylaid by communication issues, and you wish to address them now before they can become problematic. Most will agree with you outright, and those that do not will be intrigued to listen further. 

Once you have the group listening, say that you would like to create a group space of safety, one where  anyone can communicate ideas that are considered positively or negatively by the group. No person is to be ridiculed, but no idea is to be free from discussion.

Another point of discussion should be the roles that group members play. Regardless of the organizational "rank" of the individuals in the group, the group's goals outweigh them. Thus, everyone in the group should have he ability to speak-up freely without fear of reprisal. 

After articulating your vision, practice what you preach by opening it up for discussion. What are you gaining by agreeing to this new way of working? What are you losing? To what level of responsibility is the group now aspiring?

When the discussion ends and the group appears to have come to a consensus on its norms and expectation in this new way of thinking, address one more aspect: the invitation. What you are asking them to do is to embark on something extraordinary...and different. Can they step into it? By accepting the invitation, they are making a commitment to do so and to take responsibility for what comes up.

Assignment: create a conversation patterned after the one above, one that designs a space of psychological safety. Discuss what happened in the comments section below. 

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