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Psychological safety

10 Apr 2020 / Wellbeing Print

Safety nets

What is psychological safety? Does the legal profession need it? And how can it get it?

How confident would you be to speak up in a work meeting and share an idea, where it may be interpreted by others as being ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive?

What about raising concerns over a course of action that you fundamentally disagree with, but where speaking up risks alienating yourself or negatively affecting your career prospects?

Or owning up to a serious mistake, when your boss isn’t the forgiving type?

Or perhaps just being your authentic self with colleagues – letting someone know that you are feeling overwhelmed or are struggling with your mental health?

Fear of negative repercussions

If your answer to some or all of those questions is that you would most likely keep quiet for fear of negative repercussions, then you will be familiar with what millions of workers experience on a daily basis.

Whether or not you are prepared to speak up in those situations boils down to one key thing: how ‘safe’ you feel to take interpersonal risks.

If you don’t feel ‘safe’ because you worry there may be negative consequences to speaking up, then the organisation you work for will be haemorrhaging talent – talent such as lost creativity, innovation, productivity and diversity of thought.

It is also very likely to be significantly increasing the risk of unethical conduct and the covering-up of mistakes.

Safety last

Some of the biggest corporate scandals in recent history have resulted from a lack of psychological safety.

Scandals such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015 and the Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal, which saw the creation of two million fake accounts by retail bankers who were under relentless pressure from management to hit unrealistic sales targets.

No one spoke up because they feared the negative repercussions of doing so, preferring to commit fraud than to face such repercussions.

Examples

There are examples of this in the legal profession too. In England and Wales, for example, the SRA successfully appealed for Ms Sovani James to be struck off the Roll after she was found to have forged documents pertaining to matters she was dealing with.

James had felt compelled to do so because of the immense pressure she felt under to meet the unrealistic billable-hours target the management team had set.

According to reports, league tables were published each month, showing the performance of every fee-earner, and staff were expected to sign in and out at the start and end of each working day.

One of James’ former colleagues told the tribunal that lawyers were constantly told they would lose their jobs and that failure was their fault.

So we know that good people make terrible mistakes when they do not feel psychologically safe – even if it risks costing them their career.

For those of you who remember the Tenerife aircraft disaster of 1977, you will know that not feeling safe to speak up can also cost people their lives.

Psychologically safe?

Feeling confident to take interpersonal risks without fear of negative repercussions is the basis of psychological safety.

If someone is made to feel inferior (or their career prospects compromised) when they make a mistake or if they don’t know something, this creates an atmosphere that undermines psychological safety.

If people do not feel safe speaking up, they will either keep quiet or lie, both of which can have far-reaching negative implications for an organisation.

Some of the key facets of a psycho-logically safe culture include it being open, transparent, humble and respectful. A psychologically safe environment readily cuts through any of the hierarchical structures that may be in place.

Culture of candour

It is a culture that enables employees, regardless of their rank or background, to raise concerns and share their vulnerabilities. It is also a culture of candour, enabling challenging conversations to take place.

As an individual, you will likely know how confident you feel to speak up about what is on your mind – or whether, if you make a mistake, it will be held against you.

You will also know if you feel compelled to keep your cards close to your chest in order to get ahead and make a good impression. The latter two examples would suggest a low degree of psychological safety in your firm.

If you are in a leadership position, however, it may be harder to appreciate the shadow that you cast and the impact that your shadow may be having on the wider team.

Insecurities

I have met a number of senior leaders, with ferocious reputations, who, deep down, are dealing with their own insecurities. It is often these insecurities that drive their brashness, leaving an undercurrent of fear in their wake.

It is imperative that leaders appreciate how people perceive them, and one of the best ways to do that is to ask for feedback from more junior members of the team in a way that empowers them to be candid.

As a leader, you might feel comfortable surrounded by people who agree with you, and sideline those who don’t. But tacit agreement is rarely a sign of psychological safety.

In your role, it is crucial to have the most robust information upon which to make informed decisions, and that will likely include hearing opinions that differ from your own.

Benefits of psychological safety

There are many benefits to creating a psychologically safe culture. From a risk perspective, you are more likely to learn about costly mistakes when they happen, as employees feel supported in revealing them, which means you are better able to mitigate any losses.

It also enables teams to analyse and proactively ensure that similar mistakes can be avoided in future.

When people feel safe to make suggest-ions, research shows that it leads to greater innovation, collaboration, discretionary effort and productivity.

Performance

In fact, all of the evidence points towards the fact that teams with a high degree of psychological safety significantly outperform those teams who do not have it, irrespective of the combined IQ, EQ, seniority and technical skills of the people on the team.

Google undertook a multi-year project, called Project Aristotlewhich pitted psychological safety against more than 100 other metrics, and none of the data made sense without psychological safety.

Essentially, psychological safety was the defining factor that led to optimum team performance.

You might have the brightest, smartest people on a team, but if they aren’t made to feel safe, you will be wasting their talent and vast sums of money.

Unique challenges

Historically, law firms turned a blind eye to the toxic behaviours of certain fee-earners who were classed as ‘rainmakers’. What these organisations failed to realise was the true extent of the damage that these toxic behaviours caused.

Any perceived financial benefits will almost certainly be outweighed by the immeasurable costs resulting from such behaviours.

The inherent structure of most law firms means that they are poorly set up to foster a culture of psychologically safety. That isn’t to say that it can’t be done, or that there aren’t law firms who have managed to create it.

However, the hierarchical nature of law firms, the highly competitive internal environment, the focus on financial performance, and the lock-step approach to partner compensation, means that it doesn’t naturally lend itself to psychological safety.

Perceived ‘weakness’

I have spoken to many senior leaders in law firms who have experienced mental ill-health but have been reticent to speak up for fear that other partners might swoop in and steal their most prized clients in their moment of perceived ‘weakness’.

I have also heard of abhorrent behaviour at the junior end, where trainees and junior associates have been involved in less than ethical behaviour towards colleagues in an attempt to promote their own position.

This type of behaviour is driven by fear, and is rampant in cultures with low psychological safety, where people are pitted against one another in a zero-sum game.

Us too

The 2019 International Bar Association’s Us Too? report looked at the scale of
bullying and harassment in the legal profession.

The results were appalling, with one in two people saying they had been bullied and almost a third sexually harassed.

Yet 57% of those bullied and 75% of those sexually harassed did not report due to the status of the perpetrator, fear of repercussions, or such incidents being endemic in the workplace. This chronic under-reporting of incidents conveys how ‘psychologically unsafe’ legal professionals really feel.

It also highlights the important role senior leaders have to play in ensuring that people are held accountable for inappropriate behaviour and that, when people do speak up, their voices are heard and acted upon.

The role of leaders

As a managing partner or leader, it is crucial to learn, to listen more, and speak last. When you are keen to hear ideas from others, allow them to speak first and thank them for their contribution before speaking yourself.

It takes enormous courage to be a great leader – primarily because you need to learn to put your ego to one side and appreciate that many of the behaviours that may have got you to a leadership position are less likely to be the ones that will help you excel in the role.

A leader’s ability to embrace vulnerability can help those within their team feel safe. We are all human, and with that realisation comes the acknowledgement that we are imperfect, that we make mistakes, that we cannot possibly have all the answers and that, on occasion, we do struggle.

To pretend or believe otherwise lacks authenticity or self-awareness. If, as a leader, you are unable to be vulnerable, it is unfair and unrealistic to expect more junior employees to be.

Be visible

Be visible, and engage with people across all levels of your organisation on a regular basis, treat them like equals, and never become complacent. It is a lot easier to instil fear in others than it is to remove it once it has embedded itself within a culture.

Every single action (or inaction) will influence the degree to which people feel psychologically safe. Encourage your staff to raise concerns and engage in dialogue. Disagreements can be a healthy sign of psychological safety, as long as those disagreements are constructive.

If you are only finding out about major issues via the press, your whistleblowing hotline or a staff engagement survey, you likely have a lot more work to do.

What can you do?

Everyone, not just the managing partner, has a role in creating a psychologically safe culture.

Being open to other people’s opinions without judgement, being encouraging of different viewpoints, and being prepared to be brave and admit when you don’t know something or when you have made a mistake, is crucial to creating a culture of psychological safety.

Possibly one of the most challenging aspects of being a champion of positive change is learning to develop sufficient courage to be able to lean into your fears. 

Nick Bloy
Nick Bloy is a wellbeing coach and the founder of Wellbeing Republic