This article has been used with express permission by Helen Palmer, Creator of Self unLimited. To find out more go here.
Most conversations about psychological safety at work focus on how a leader will create conditions within a team context.
That’s a great conversation to have. However, it’s not the only conversation to have.
Safety defined by self
‘Safety’ can be experienced in different flavours – influenced by personality, background and past experiences. To participate effectively in a team or work conversation about psychological safety, it’s helpful if you have done your own thinking about what this means to you.
As sovereign over your workscape (which includes whichever team you are currently part of), you exercise your personal power to create conditions that are under your control (or your influence – different but related thing) to shape your sense of safety.
The first act of life is to create a boundary, a membrane that is the cell’s identity. It defines an inside and an outside, what it is, what it is not. - Margaret Wheatley
The value of safety
When you have psychological safety, you can act “without fear of negative consequences concerning neither one’s self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990:708); you take risks; you embrace missteps and mistakes; and you explore the boundaries you want to push, leap over or re-create.
It’s necessary to feel a degree of safety when you want to have real conversations, including conversations with yourself, about things that matter.
For some, the idea of being Self unLimited, can be confronting. What power do I now realise I have given away? What boundaries have I not established or preserved?
I find comfort in wise words like these. They bolster my inner strength, which in turn helps me make new decisions I can live with. I accept I’ll always be re-negotiating what works for me, with myself.
For what it’s worth: It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over. - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Shaping your sense of safety
Conditions are unlikely to be perfect for where you feel completely safe in a situation. So it’s useful to determine what is the minimum safety you need for different situations, including important conversational moments.
This starts with being aware: Being aware of your feelings, your perceptions, your inner talk, and your needs. Being aware of the physical environment around you and how you exist within that.
Use your awareness, to consider what exists and has an impact on you. Do you need to take something out of the space? Add something to the space? Simply, accept what is present? Do you need a plan for when you might need to leave the space? Do you need to find a way to linger in a space with a stillness and openness to what might emerge? If your current need for safety look more like a sanctuary for quiet respite, or guard rails as you boldly move out of an old comfort zone? Awareness is so important for the entangled relationship you have with the spaces where you exist.
Being safe doesn’t have to mean being cocooned and protected, with all your proverbial ducks lined up in a row. In it’s purest form, it’s an inner sense you can carry with you – very useful to have when you venture into new and unfamiliar territory.
Your sense of safety can be a more than a singular thing, it’s a multiplicity along a spectrum. You might choose to not engage in a particular situation. Or choose to engage under certain conditions. Or choose to engage with a certain mindset that sets up the emotional and mental confidence about how you can deal with things – like taking a leap and trusting that a net will appear.
Your sense of safety isn’t someone else’s. So be mindful of what expectations you are holding, and what assumptions you are making when you enter a shared space that indicates the need for safety. In some situations, you might be able to tolerate greater (or lesser) conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity even confusion – compared to others. In some situations, you might need more (or less) support, permission, scaffolding, safety nets and exit strategies – than what others are getting or seeking.
Borrow ideas from what others do and seems to work for them – but reshape these for yourself.
It’s a delicate balance. And for you, only you will know when it’s a balance that works for you between empathising to enable a shared space of safety, and looking after your own needs.
How Self unLimited relates to safe conversations
At the core of Self unLimited thinking are the seven Responsibilities. Three of these Responsibilities are connected to the quality of conversations you have with yourself and others.
REIGN You are worthy. If you are the top dog, the big kahuna, the kingpin, the big cheese, the commander – then nobody would question your worthiness to be making decisions. And for Self unLimited, you are all these and more for your workscape. So remember, you are worthy to be making decisions. Say It! Believe it! This inner sense will be vital as you venture into new and unfamiliar territory. Like an important conversation.
You have decisions to make about what you want and what you are willing to do to get that. Generally for any important conversation that may emerge; as well as specifically for an important conversation you are about to have. You have power to decide; you have permission to want; you have your own tolerance for risk and mistakes. It’s as simple as that.
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. - Alice Walker
RULES You probably hold some inner truths about what you will and won’t tolerate. They’ll already be quietly guiding your behaviour. It’s good to be able to articulate these for yourself so you are can confidently be clear about them – otherwise they’ll feel as substantial as vapour.
It’s also good if you have the words ready to share with others so they can understand and support you in your choices. Setting rules helps you get the results you want. Setting new rules helps you get different results than you have been getting in the past.
And nobody needs to know they are ‘rules’. Use language that works for you, like your conditions, your requirements, or your needs. That they exist and you will honour them is more important than what they are called.
You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop and what you reinforce. - Tony Gaskins
RELATIONSHIPS This is about who you are when you show up for the conversation, as well as how they show up for you.
Firstly, when you show up for an important conversation – be present. Be there and nowhere else. Don’t let yourself be distracted by devices or other events. If the person and the conversation are truly important, then they need and deserve your full attention.
When you have a need to talk, be careful about whom you choose to talk with. There’s no substitute for someone who gets you, and knows who they should be in that conversation. Though that can change and vary from situation to situation – don’t assume to know: Ask who you need to be or Ask them who they need to be for you. And honour them by showing up that way.
You are not alone. Though you can be when you choose to be. You might be feeling tension, even a bit grumpy as you going through the growing pains of something. You’ll want to have some conversations with people who don’t take your angst personally, and can participate without making it about themselves.
A conversation is an event. It may come and go. The people with whom you talk may be people who you want to stick around. Words have consequences, so in choosing them for your conversation, be guided by what kind of relationship you seek to have in the future.
The people in your life are like the pillars on your porch. Sometimes they hold you up, and sometimes they lean on you. Sometimes it’s enough to know they are standing by. - Merle Shain
A conversation can be thought of like a dance. There’s forward and backwards motion. There’s give and take. You’re in constant response with the Other. Embrace the missteps; share the floor while mutually supporting each other; and express yourself safely.
You might have the time of your life! [Cue the music]
Helen Palmer, Founder of Self unLimited, has been in many workscape situations that needed a rethink about feeling safe and what she needed to have a good sense of safety. She offers fresh advice to help others create safe spaces in their workscape, particularly those parts that are co-inhabited by other people. She’s a strong advocate for self-sovereignty, and enabling individuals to shape the conditions to do their best work. She also recommends Conversations with Julie podcast series for insight and inspiration for conversations that enable people to be functional and compassionate humans.
Kahn, William (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal. No. 33(4): 692-724.
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