What Comes First: Psychological Safety or Trust?
In my last LinkedIn post on this topic, a colleague, Bogdan Manta responded with the 5 drivers his company focuses on when it comes to employee engagement:
Choice / Autonomy | Fairness / Equity | Psychological Safety | Learn / Challenge | Voice / Recognition
I, in turn, responded to his comment with the following: “Bogdan, in looking at this list, I feel that Psychological Safety (PS) is the foundation for the other drivers.” I promised to explore this further in my next article and told him I’d love to have his feedback on this. He has promised to do so and I look forward to hearing his thoughts and yours as well.
To begin, I thought that trust and psychological safety are the same. In doing a deeper dive, I’ve come to the conclusion there are some differences but they are definitely interdependent.
In relation to the team or group experience, psychological safety is best defined as: “… a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes and the team is safe for inter-personal risk taking.” Amy Edmondson Or, in other words attributed to her: “the sense that we can share our feelings, beliefs, and experiences openly at work without fear of retribution, loss of status, or punishment”.
Trust is in relation to each other, how we view another. Psychological safety is the belief regarding the norms within the group. In other words: “Trust is personal; psychological safety is a group phenomenon.” I may trust you to get the job done or to be honest about a situation. But do I feel safe to admit when I’m wrong or have doubts about a project, that these will not be thrown back in my face.
With this deeper dive into trust, I discovered there are two elements to trust, which if both are present, builds the psychological safety of the group. Cognitive Trust, is the confidence one has in the abilities and reliability of the other to get the job done. It’s more ‘head based’ or rational. Affective Trust is more heart based and is described as “mutual interpersonal care and concern or emotional bonds”. Our behavior then, towards another, is fundamental in building trust. Both aspects of trust are needed to create a psychologically safe work environment with each other and within the group.
Recently, I facilitated a team session on building personal resilience. Someone expressed their desire to be able to speak freely when something is bothering them, when they’re feeling stressed. To be able to express feelings of overwhelm, when things aren’t going the way they were expected to, is of paramount importance in building a feeling of safety.
With this deeper dive, in looking at Bogdan’s list of drivers to promote Employee Engagement, then I have to say this can’t be achieved without psychological safety as the foundation. Or is it the chicken and egg metaphor? When all the other drivers are in place, then you’ve created a psychologically safe work environment in which employees thrive?
Starting the conversations, listening with and expressing empathy, having an open mind and leaving judgments out of the conversation are just a few essential ways to build this safety. Be curious, be open, be courageous, be non-judgmental. Who then is going to start the conversation? In the words of a Ready for Female Leadership co-author, Archana Wuntakal, ‘if not you, then who?’.