Chip Neidigh

A Safe Place to Fall

Leaders often overestimate how likely others are to share important information with them.  My own painful experience illustrates this truth.

When my firstborn (now 22 years old) was in high school, she woke me up at 2am to share something that was intensely personal and important to her.  I got irritated at being awakened.  I snapped at her to go back to bed– that her issue wasn’t that big a deal.  And I promptly fell back to sleep.

I forgot all about this until 4 years later, when she reminded me of the incident and revealed that she counted that as the worst day of her life.  She had felt devalued and abandoned.  And she stopped believing that I was a safe place to fall.

It grieved me to hear how my carelessness and selfishness was so damaging to our relationship.  I had been living for four years under the delusion that if she got in a bind and needed help, she would confide in me.  But I had lost the right to be her confidante, because when she courageously revealed her truth years ago, I didn’t give her a soft landing.  Instead, I punished her revelation.

Psychological safety is the condition in which members of a team courageously reveal their thinking and are supported in that revelation.  

Imagine a high-jumper at a track meet leaping over the bar.  She is taking a risk by jumping (analogous to the team member sharing his or her truth).  The thick landing pad cushions her fall (analogous to the supportive response from the rest of the team).  If there is no landing pad, she falls onto the pavement and incurs pain (at minimum) or serious injury.  If the pad is soft, she hustles off the mat, readies herself for the next jump, and risks again.

What does a leap look like?  Here are five categories of truths that take courage to reveal:

  1. Uncomfortable chapters in our life stories
  2. Errors, ignorance, failure
  3. Ideas that are zany, risky, even foolish
  4. Performance feedback that will be hard for others to hear
  5. Challenges to sacred cows

What does a soft landing look like?  Some ways teams actively support courageous revelation:

  1. Acknowledging  (“What stands out to me…”)
  2. Accepting others’ emotions  (“It seems like you feel…”)
  3. Curiosity to learn more  (“Tell me more about…”)
  4. Thankfulness  (“I’m glad you shared that because…”)

What does a hard landing look like?  Some ways teams punish revelation:

  1. Hijacking  (“That reminds me of a story…”)
  2. Fixing  (“So here’s what you need to do…”)
  3. Spinning Positive  (“I’m sure it will work out…”)
  4. Apathy  (“No questions.  Is it my turn?”)

Recent conversations with different CEO clients (who are each working to build psychological safety on their executive teams) have led me to several conclusions:

  1. Trust and psychological safety share a common characteristic:  they both take time to build and can be lost in an instant.  Take care as you build, and safeguard what you’ve built.
  2. You may not be as safe for others as you think you are.  Just as I assumed I was safe for my daughter, there might be incidents that you’ve forgotten (but others haven’t) that are keeping them from taking the leap.  There’s a simple way to find out if such incidents have occurred, so that you can start repairing the damage: access your humility and curiosity, then ask each individual on your team.
  3. The team leader can’t create psychological safety on their own– it’s too heavy a lift for one person.  Even if you are modeling the behaviors required (revealing, and supporting others’ revelation), it won’t be enough.  You personally being supportive (as the team leader) is necessary but not sufficient.  Whereas trust is a 1:1 construct, psychological safety is a team construct (thanks to Kate Price for this insight).  It requires full group participation.  
  4. The bigger the team, the more challenging it is to build psychological safety.  With more relationships to manage, each individual has to invest greater energy to reveal, and to support others.  Beyond 8 members, it starts getting more difficult.
  5. Creating psychological safety requires active support, not just the absence of punishment.  Think of a neutral response to courageous revelation as a 1.5-inch-thick mat.  It may be enough to prevent catastrophic injury, but it isn’t enough to make a jumper want to leap again.  Creating an expectation (and shared accountability) around desired behaviors builds a thicker landing pad.

This is a journey.  I know we have work to do on the Kairos team to build more psychological safety.  We’re making progress together, and I’m striving to fully own my part.

More importantly, I’m re-earning the right to hear my daughter’s truth.  When she does take a risk, I’m providing her as soft a landing as I can.  She has fierce courage.  And I’m maturing into deeper levels of safety as her father.  It’s a good combination.

There is much work ahead, and I like our trajectory.

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