I am about to leave my current role in a few weeks and I am absolutely gutted about it.
The first question my new teammates asked me on my first day was whether I liked football and which team I was a supporter of. Although I got the answer wrong by saying Arsenal (they are all Liverpool and Man United fans) I was from the first moment onwards part of something. We spent time together getting to know each other and they all made an effort to learn more about me on a personal, rather than professional level.
From the first moment I walked into the building I felt that I belonged. I felt psychologically safe.
People were always talking. There was a buzz of business talk combined with personal stories my colleagues were sharing with one another at all times. When there was an issue then it was brought to the surface immediately. At no point did I feel that I couldn't ask for help or support. That was extremely welcoming when I was starting out but is still necessary for me to do my best work on a daily basis.
Now I am not saying everyone has to hit it off so well with their new colleagues. Sometimes it takes more time to get to know one another and there is no issue with that. In fact, only with time can we start to settle in with our new colleagues, understand what the culture is like and how vulnerable people are showing up in front of each other.
But feeling that you can make mistakes without being judged and actually get help when you need answers is crucial for your well being and sense of self in the workplace. Here are some questions to work out for yourself whether you feel psychologically safe you at your place of work:
➤ How often do I keep quiet because I don't want to admit mistakes or ask for help?
➤ How frequently do I fear being judged by others for the work I deliver?
➤ To what extent is my opinion or expertise valued by my peers and superiors?
I know all of this because I lived through it. The company I had previously worked at had a culture where everything was purely transactional. It was about progress updates and results but little else.
Understanding the difference
While I agree that those things are important for organisational success they cannot be the only thing a company culture is focused on.
Because what happens when it is all about results?
We are pressured. We don't speak up. We don't ask for help. We make mistakes. We lie about them. We feel lonely. We lack confidence. We get afraid. We make more mistakes.
That is the definition of a workplace where people don't feel psychologically safe.
And it is a real problem.
However, an even bigger problem is if we feel powerless and don't make any changes.
When I walked away from that toxic environment I was afraid. My confidence was shattered and I did no longer believe that I had the ability to do a good job. Who the hell would want to hire me?!
And here is the answer: the first company I interviewed with offered me the job. It is the company I work for today.
Culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated
Leaving my old role was the best thing that could have happened to me. But it took me about 1,5 years of suffering and doubting myself until I took action.
I kept on telling myself that I was the problem. That I had to improve and change my attitude. Man up. That is what cultures that make you feel psychologically unsafe do.
Culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated. When leaders get away with their behaviour we can feel powerless and numb.
But you do have power. Always. Anything is better than working in a place that makes you feel unsafe to speak up and show the world what you are really all about.
Don't tolerate your situation for one day longer if you are feeling psychologically unsafe. Speak up, reach out and network with other teams in your department.
If none of those things are possible then the only thing left for you to do is to walk away and find a place that makes you feel safe and allows you to do your best work.
Please believe me when I say: those organisations exist and they are in need of people just like you.