Psychological Safety at work starts in school

Chris Bent

Chris is Co-founder and CEO of Piccles

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Psychological Safety at work starts in school

“That’s not what a whale looks like”

Your third grade teacher might have offhandedly uttered these words when peering over your tiny shoulder during arts and crafts, but you felt those words in your soul.

“There’s a right and a wrong way of drawing a whale, and I’m doing it the wrong way” this epiphany strikes you for the first time after a childhood of free expression and creative chaos.

For the first time in your life, you feel judged for something you’ve created. And this ugly feeling of failure, makes you want it to be the last.

But what if your 3rd grade teacher was trained in psychological safety?

You would have had a whole different experience.

She would have encouraged your whale that looked more like a soggy sandwich. Demonstrating curiosity for your creation, she would ask questions about it and show interest in what is there, not project her beliefs on you.

She would encourage you to embrace mistakes, to use them, and not take them so seriously. Keep creating and you might arrive somewhere you would have never expected.

Maybe your 3rd grade teacher would even try to draw a whale of her own, and demonstrate how ugly her drawing is, making you feel better about not being perfect.

And then she would support you with some more colors, because who ever said whales can’t be rainbow colored with big green eyes?

This might seem like an insignificant experience, but a lifetime of authority figures conforming and controlling your creative expression builds up and buries that bright eyed child inside each of us who just wants to express themselves and not feel judged for it.

You might not be drawing pictures of whales with your corporate colleagues, but the setting and circumstances are quite similar.

As you grow up, your whale drawing becomes the proposal for a new project, a social media post, raising a concern to your manager or an initiative that’s not working out.

These all take risks. And in a corporate world where everyone is protecting their jobs because they are quite comfortable suckling on the sweet sustenance of a bi-weekly paycheck, losing their job is the last thing they want.

It’s outrageous to think a 3rd grader would get kicked out of school for an anatomically incorrect whale drawing, but it’s accepted that a corporate blunder negatively impacting the organization results in termination.

Of course, there ARE exceptions to this rule.

Alex Hormozi has a gym launch company, and an employee screwed up the launch date and cost the company $600,000. Instead of firing this employee and finding someone who wouldn’t make this mistake, he accepted it and forgave the transgression, chalking it up to a training expense.

Because there is NO way that same employee would make that same mistake again.

And that is fundamentally what I think psychological safety is all about.

Knowing that your peers, your boss and company leadership have your back. They encourage open and honest dialogue, even when it hurts to hear.

They welcome the shining of light into the darkness, instead of ignoring it until the darkness consumes everything.

Leaders who have the humility and vulnerability to say “I don’t know how to draw a whale, why don’t you try?”

Humans are social creatures, we know when we mess up, and often the punishment we give ourselves is swifter and stronger than anything that was coming from others.

Withholding judgement, welcoming calculated failures, and treating people like the “flawed but doing our best” humans that we are is the only way to go. I hope you'll go there with me.