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Why leaders need to focus on both psychological and physical safety

Thousands of years ago, when humans roamed the African savannah, it was in our best interests to live in tribes. Being part of a tribe allowed us to sleep soundly knowing that others were looking out for man-eating sabre-toothed tigers.  

We are biologically programmed to want to be with people and work together, as we instinctively know it helps our survival.  We feel alive when we are with other people.  Yet, there is a dark underbelly to this need to be with others - we also fear rejection.  In fact, neuroscience studies have uncovered we experience social rejection like physical pain.  

Our brains scan our environment 4-5 times a second to make sure we are safe.  While we no longer have to fear Bengal tigers, in the workplace, we are subconsciously cautious about our teammates.

The consequence is that we are constantly evaluating our level of interpersonal risk in our teams and workplaces.  Interpersonal risk is the fear that people won’t think highly of us or at an extreme level will reject us altogether. In our dealing with others, we subconsciously weigh up whether to say what we think or remain silent.  It means we allow potential issues to unfold.

You can think of interpersonal risk as monitoring both our physical AND psychological safety.  And we need to feel safe in order to trust. 

In a workplace, I define trust as being able to confidently rely (and predict) that others will do the right thing and make good on their promises.  Trusting others is a key component of being human.  The relationships we have that make us feel safe are really important to us.

Great team leaders improve team performance through reducing the impact of the hidden fear of interpersonal risk by ensuring their team feel both physically and emotionally safe.

And the fastest way to do that is to show compassion or caring for others.

Our brain feels good when people care about us.   We function better.

A Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of 32,000 employees from 29 countries found that caring was the most important thing leaders can do to create a high trust culture. Those who work with caring leaders are 67% more engaged than colleagues whose supervisors do not care about them.  Respondents said that caring was more important than training, benefits or salary.  It even increased employee retention. 

I see caring as helping people feel that they are safe at work.  Essentially, employees want to feel confident that they are in safe hands.  And safety is on two levels- psychological safety, but physical is important as well.

Let's go through how they both play out in the workplace.

The Importance of a Physically Safe Workplaces

COVID has really shone a spotlight on the importance of health, safety and wellbeing - elevating the relevancy of health and safety messages as being so much greater than just “HSE on the shop floor.”  Now, employees realised the value of the safety department’s role in mental health and wellbeing of employees both at home and at work.  

Today, employees want heart-felt, engaging emotional content that helps them understand why they should care about health and wellbeing.  It also highlights whether their leaders and the company itself can be trusted.

Since COVID, internal communication has become more valued by employees as it demonstrates how much an organisation cares about their employees.  And provided important reassurance to their people - providing comfort during uncomfortable times.  

Employees look to senior leaders to see that safety is a priority and that they are safe from harm.  Heartfelt safety communication bridges the gap between leadership and employees to demonstrate how much the organisation cares about people.  

Physical safety is judged as being taken seriously by an organisation when people have the right resources to work and live safely.  Communication is disseminated and actioned on that promotes ‘everybody must care about everybody.'  While leaders carefully avoid sending conflicting messages that getting things done more quickly is more important than safety. 

To feel physically safe, people need to feel that their colleagues are also looking out for them as well.  Employees can get so busy doing their work that they often don’t realise that safety is about ensuring that they’re not putting their colleagues into risky situations.  Accidents can occur through simple mistakes such as dropping slippery oil on the kitchen floor.  Making it a trip hazard for the next person.  

A lot of people confuse safety as being about compliance, but at its core it’s about compassion for human life that sends the deeply emotionally resonant message that people are valued.

After all, we are more likely to trust the organisation we work for, if we can see consistent action and intention to do the right thing by people.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

In addition, to being physically safe, we need to feel that we’re not at risk of being bullied or will suffer from anxiety due to workplace pressures or toxic colleagues.  That dealing with other people is not going to hurt us either physically or emotionally.  

Psychological safety is different to physical safety because it’s not so obvious when someone has got hurt.  After all, if your boss makes a derogatory remark or pressures you to work longer hours, you don’t instantly get a bruise on your face.  Instead, if you’re in a really toxic environment, over a period of time, you will get a range of symptoms from headaches, insomnia, stomach aches and strange body pains.  

It’s also not visible like a lack of physical safety in the workplace.  Unsafe workplaces look unsafe.  An interesting study a few years ago found that untidy workplaces are more likely to have more accidents and incidents.  Just by looking at a workplace, you can accurately assess how safe it is.

But it’s not so easy to look at a workplace and see if it’s psychologically unsafe.  It remains hidden because most people outside of the team aren’t aware of what is occurring.  A lot of leadership behaviours that create a lack of psychological safety can be covert.  To the CEO, the leader looks like a results-driven star, but to her team members she’s a micromanaging control freak.   Complaints to HR about the leader’s behaviour are ignored.  So team members continue tiptoeing around their emotionally volatile boss and it becomes a tacitly accepted work routine.

Toxic bosses regularly get promoted for getting the job done at the expense of their team’s mental health.  Irrevocably sending conflicting messages to employees that people don't really matter.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of working with dysfunctional leader, you know how devastating it can be to your wellbeing.  It slowly chips away at your self-confidence and job fulfilment.  And it can take years to get your mojo back.  

Over the years, psychological safety has become a popular term.  And I am not negating its importance because before that term, we didn't really have the language to explain how we were faring with a dysfunctional boss.  Most of us, just had to put up with it for fear of others disagreeing.

But we need to understand that both physical and psychological safety are important for our health and wellbeing.  Because they demonstrate to employees that they are cared for - that they matter.  They go together like peanut butter and jam.  Sometimes we go a bit top heavy with the jam.  Other times, we put too much peanut butter.  But get it right and it gives people the comfort food they crave.