In this episode, I define psychological safety and explain why it's important in the workplace and what individuals in L&D can do to promote psychological safety in their organizations. I also talk about the traits of toxic work environments, how L&D can help make a difference, and advice for if and when you find yourself in a toxic work environment. As someone who successfully got out of a toxic work environment, this topic is close to my heart. I'm so proud to work for a place that has, even in my short tenure, encouraged me to show up as my authentic self each and every day.
Connect with Heidi on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/heidiekirby/ or on my website: www.heidikirby.com
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Hello friends, and welcome to the block the building learning and organizational culture podcast. I'm your host, Heidi Kirby. And on today's episode, I want to talk about a really serious topic that's close to my heart. And that's psychological safety and toxic work environments. Now, psychological safety, at work or in a professional environment, is when people feel comfortable bringing their full, genuine self to work, and that they feel comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions, sharing concerns, or making mistakes and owning up to those mistakes. If any of those things are not true, then the person is not in a psychologically safe work environment. Why is this important for l&d folks? Well, first of all, we have in a lot of cases, some sort of influence on whether the learning experiences including onboarding, professional development, leadership, development, customer education, and more are welcoming to all types of people, neurodivergent LGBTQIA, plus. Women, men, minorities, older people, younger people, everyone has a right to feel safe from punishment, or humiliation in their workplace. I'm going to say that one more time, everyone has a right to feel that they won't be punished or humiliated in their work environment. And we can help that along as l&d professionals by creating more inclusive experiences. But more so I wanted to talk about this because someone reached out to me, actually, a couple of people have now reached out to me talking about toxic work environments or toxic cultures and and asking for my advice. And I'm by no means our career coach or counselor or, you know, I don't have all the answers. Nor do I pretend to especially when it comes to psychology, not my strong suit, not my fields. But I think people maybe see somebody who cares, and somebody who wants to include everyone in me. And so. And I've been very open about my own experiences in toxic work environments. And I think it resonates with people. And so I've had a couple of people reach out to me about different situations. And I want to say that, as learning and development professionals, we work with a lot of different people in the organization. And sometimes that can mean not being in a situation where we feel psychologically safe for whatever reason. I hope that we feel safe enough to go to our leaders, when we're not feeling you know that that safety, that you can go to a manager or a supervisor and say, Hey, listen, this stakeholder is so humiliating to me and acts like I'm an idiot every time I try to understand what he wants from this course. Or you can go to your supervisor and say, Hey, listen, my teammates are treating me disrespectfully, they're nitpicking my work. They're changing my files. They're going over my head and talking to this mes and changing my work, which is something that actually happened to me, right. And hopefully you have somebody in your work environment that you can talk to and share those things. But the importance of having that psychological safety net at work is not just for the person. It's for the entire organization, right? Because if your workplace is not known for being a safe place, people are going to start leaving and it's going to be noticeable, right it and the psychological safety someone feels may or may not be connected to what is considered a toxic work environment. Now, a toxic work environment doesn't mean that you hate your job, right? If you hate your job, it may or may not be because you're in a toxic work environment. Toxic work environments are characterized by very siloed departments, right siloed departments that have bad communication that have cliquish behavior, that have unmotivated workers. If there's a rapid turnover for people, and bad leadership, and you and everyone else you talk to has bad leaders. If people are being pushed to their breaking point, if there's no work life balance, and there's constant brink of burnout, if people are being expected to work weird hours or extra hours, or, you know, I often see phrases that say like when you're like a family, and people say that that's a red flag, because that means people are not going to treat you nicely. Or, you know, we're looking for a fast paced environment, right, fast paced environment, to me, has always meant that you're going to be working more than 40 hours a week. It's not necessarily that the pace is fast, it's that you're going to be expected to put in a lot. Toxic work environments also might not have performance objectives for you to be working towards periodically. If you don't have annual or quarterly performance goals, and you have all those other things. You might be in a toxic work environment, there's not a lot of opportunity for people to move up and grow. Leaders are not promoted from within. Goals are not met, or you don't know what the business goals are. And when you have all those things at play, you can kind of feel like you're really in a toxic environment. And the reason I wanted to talk about this a little bit is because someone reached out to me and said, Hey, so if we're l&d professionals, and we can influence the culture of our organization, what do we do if the environment is toxic? How can we influence that culture? And I said, That's a great question. But unfortunately, if the workplaces culture is truly toxic, there's really not much the l&d can do. l&d can take a culture that is, okay, or, or average and make it a lot better by creating a learning culture. And by creating a culture where people feel engaged and encouraged and included, and then want to work on their professional development, work on their next career move, work on their leadership, development and learn, right? If people are feeling engaged in their work, if they're feeling like they constantly have something to, to move toward and to work toward, then they're going to be able to be more open to learning, right? You know, if you were in, let's say, junior in high school, I want you to think back to when you were a junior in high school. I was a very sassy, junior in high school, I was kind of a pain. I shared a 1995 green Dodge Neon with my dad, I worked at a local dentist office. But anyway, imagine your junior in high school self, right. And now imagine that halfway through the school year. Your guidance counselor told you I couldn't remember the name sorry, your guidance counselor told you that you weren't going to be able to finish the school year. No one had told you this. There was poor communication, bad leadership, no growth. And let's imagine you'd also been busting your butt. So you don't have work life balance. And you know, your guidance counselor says you're gonna have to repeat junior year next year, halfway through the year, right. What would be your motivation for the rest of the year? Would you go to class? Would you keep trying if someone has already told you that you're not going to succeed. If you believe that you're not going to succeed, then why would you even bother trying? It's the same way in workplaces, right? If you feel that you can't succeed, if you feel that you can't communicate with your leaders, if you feel that you can't make progress toward a goal, because of obstacles, or roadblocks, or people, then what is going to motivate you to keep doing a great job? Probably not much. And so there's the high employee turnover piece of a toxic work environment, right. So then the question is, what can we do? If we are in a toxic work environment? What can we do, if we don't feel psychologically safe in our work environment, and in my advice is always this. If you can, if you are able, start looking for another job. I know that that's easier said than done. Okay? I know that looking for a way out, doesn't work for everyone. Some people have to quit their jobs because they're that toxic, or they feel that psychologically unsafe, they feel that endanger their fight or flight response has been activated, and they have to quit. But a lot of people, especially in the United States, where health care is tied to our work, and other things are so ingrained in our workplace that we can't just up and quit, when we don't feel safe, or when we don't feel feel that we're going anywhere. And so, if that's the case, and you can't immediately leave, start looking for new opportunities. And yes, it takes time. Right. But by looking for new opportunities, by updating your resume, I've found in my previous roles that have been toxic, which is make it sound like they're all, no, just a couple, like one toxic work environment, and one where I didn't quite feel psychologically safe. And in both of those, those situations, updating my resume, gave me like a wave of relief. And it was because I then saw a light at the end of the tunnel, right? My end game was, I'm gonna move on, I'm gonna get out of here. I'm going to work somewhere else that's less toxic, that's less dangerous. And so so doing those things, filling out job applications, connecting with people on LinkedIn, reaching out to people about roles. All of those things help to relieve that just a little bit. Even if it was only for a moment, or even if it was only for the evening, right? I'm sure many of you have heard of the Sunday scaries. Right. Oftentimes, when people work in environments that aren't psychologically safe, or that are toxic, they get what is called the Sunday scaries. Where on Sunday evenings, anxiety, fear, resentment, anger, frustration, all of these things cycle. As you prepare for a Monday morning, where you don't know what's going to happen next. Perhaps you're going to have a successful meeting with your leader. Perhaps it's going to go awful. Perhaps you're going to feel okay and maybe not have any meetings or perhaps there's going to be a hey, we need to talk put on your calendar. I have found in my experience that a good way to deal with the Sunday scaries is not only by really immersing yourself in time with family and friends, but also to fill out a couple job applications. Update your resume, have a an informational interview with somebody. Because it's been my experience that even when I've shared with people I trust that I'm not experiencing a positive workplace, that I'm not feeling psychologically safe. Nothing has really happened to the people that were making me feel that way. And that's fine. You know, that's, I mean, it's not fine. But it ended up working out okay for me, I just moved on. And a lot of times, especially with toxic work environments where there's very little room to grow and to move up and to to be promoted. The only way to get out of that is to go somewhere else. Now, that's kind of like the downer like this is a really, this is a really hard episode to record. And it's really hard to organize my thoughts, because I have so much that I want to say, and so many stories that I want to share just have like, petty stuff, but I don't think that'll be helpful. Right. I don't think commiseration is necessarily the right route here. And so on the other hand, I want to share, how can we, as an l&d community, make sure that we're creating psychologically safe spaces, and fighting toxic work environments and letting people know, in our networks, that they don't have to stay in environments like that? Right. So let's talk first, how can we help create psychologically safe environments as an l&d team? Number one, this is something that I'm doing, and my team is doing right now. Join affinity groups. Now. I will say that if your organization is a toxic one, and that there's not a lot of places that are psychologically safe than you probably don't have employee affinity groups. However, you can recognize in an affinity group or also known as an erg, or employee resource group, by the way, that it brings people with similar backgrounds and interests together, and the influence those groups have on the workplace. So there might be groups for minorities, for LGBTQIA plus, for women. Trying to think of other different affinity groups that exist, those are like the top three that come to mind. But the goal of those groups is so that not only can people network, but they can create psychological safety for everyone else in the workplace. They can show a united front and have impact on the actual business goals and make sure that the organizational goals and core values are inclusive. And l&d can be part of that and l&d can help those groups. Because they always need people to volunteer to train, they always need materials, and they need to get the word out there, right. We're really great people to help support those initiatives. And because we work cross functionally with so many different other departments, it's a really great way for us to not only help the ERG or the affinity group, but also to network with other people that we may need to work with, and it can make our lives easier. By Oh, hey, new Smee you were in my women's group. Oh, it's so great to talk to you again. Right. And so that's a really great way and as a leader of an l&d team, giving your team time to do those things. And to serve that way, can really encourage psychological safety. Giving your employees time for professional development period, is also a really great way to contribute to psychological safety because it's establishing that that career path forward, right. As a leader on an LNT team, you can also make sure that everyone has a voice. You can make sure that people feel comfortable speaking up in meetings, that people feel comfortable sharing new ideas. And what you can do is help to facilitate productive conflict. There is a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And I'm a big fan, because it says that like, the perfect team doesn't always agree. And that's fine, because like, we're all very different. And we all have very different ideas. And for us to come together and all agree on everything is baddie. Like it's just not going to happen. But if we can learn how to disagree, in a way that's respectful, and in a way that says, Hmm, I'm not sure I agree with what you're saying, can you talk about it more? Or? Yeah, my idea is a lot different than that. Let me share it and see where we can find a place in the middle to meet. The way we can establish that forum for conflict is super important. And the way that we build trust with our team, as a leader, is also incredibly important. For me, being really transparent with my team, not only about how I work, what I expect, what my goals are, but also transparent in the sense of, if I have a conversation with my boss, and it's not confidential, I can share that with my team, right? And let them know what's going on. Because a lot of times, leaders keep their team in the dark about things that they learn or that they find out or, you know, because they want to, they want to protect their team, and they want to keep their team focused. But for me, the whole point of like a weekly team meeting is everybody shares what they're working on, including the leader. And by doing that, you're saying, I'm not keeping an eye on you. I'm not watching you. We're working together. Right? If we all share what we're working on, it feels a lot less like, what are you doing? What are you doing all day? How are you going to justify your existence, and feels more like, Hey, here's what we're doing, here's how we can help each other. And the best part is, once you've established that trust within your team, your team members are going to come to you, before problem gets crazy big, because they're going to trust that you're going to be able to help them. And so you can avoid awful conversations, difficult conversations, performance conversations, abject failures, if you have trust, because you're going to find out that it's happening before it gets to that point. And so that's a really great way to promote psychological safety to is to just work really hard to build trust with your team. Back when I was a college professor, one of the things that I always did in my English comp class was I shared an essay that I wrote, oh my god on Emily Dickinson. From when I was in high school, me, the English professor, the person who is teaching them how to write papers, oh, I shared this terrible essay, oh, it's garbage. The essay is like the worst. And I shared it during our like peer review lesson, where we were learning how to give people constructive kind feedback, but still let them know the problems. And it was hard for every single one of my classes to give kind feedback, because my paper was so bad. And typically, based on the fact that I'm a terrible liar, they would figure out through the process of the exercise that it was my paper. But my point was, that we're all beginners at some point, right? And that, if I remove the ego from the conversation of, well, I'm the leader of this class, and I'm the expert and I know everything, then people are a lot more open and trusting with you. Right. And I think it's important to let people know that you're going to learn from them as much as they're going to learn from you. Because listen, even if you've been a leader for years, you can still learn something from everyone. I truly believe that I truly believe in that people can teach you all kinds of lessons just by learning about who they are and where they come from and where they are in life. And the thing about l&d is that there are so many different facets to l&d, right? There the tools that we use the theories that we rely on neuroscience, behavior change, performance, improvement, accessibility, inclusion, empathic design, VR and XR, like, there's so many rabbit holes to dive down in learning and development as a whole, that I can never learn all the things, I have to find people who know things that I don't, to rely on and to work with, so that we can all be successful. And it's really important to approach leadership. To me anyway, it's really important to approach leadership with that learner mindset, that, even if I have nothing else left to learn about instructional design, which is false, that I can still learn how to be a better leader, by working with new instructional designers, right? Even if leadership is the only thing we learned about, we still have the opportunity to learn. We also need to be open to feedback. I got some really hard to hear feedback. This semester from a student in my grad class. I had I messed up, I shared an episode of a podcast without listening to the whole thing. I listened to like the intro and was like, Yeah, that sounds good. And it was not an inclusive podcast for the LGBTQIA community. It was quite religious and quite closed minded. And my student felt enough trust in me to share that the episode really bothered her. And I felt terrible. And I was like I am I genuinely am so sorry. Because I should have listened to this. And should have been more intentional with choosing this episode for everyone to listen to. But I read the show notes and listen to the first few minutes and went and the sounds good. And put it on there and didn't even know. And, you know, she was like, I don't want you to have to change the class or anything or you know, and I was like, No, you are absolutely right. This is no one in my class is ever going to listen to this thing again. And, you know, I, I thanked her, but like I messed up, right as a leader. And that's the thing is that as leaders, we're going to mess that up. We're going to ask you to do something, and then our priorities are gonna get changed, or we're gonna forget to tell you, or we're going to forget to review the thing of yours that we promised we would review. And I think it's really important how we as leaders behave when that happens. And I think it's also important to remember, as individual contributors, that our leaders are still human, that our species are still human, that our stakeholders are still human, right. And when they come to us and say, Hey, I messed up, to have some, some grace for them. But it's also important to not be walked on, to not be bullied, to not be abused, right? Just because someone says that they're sorry, doesn't mean that the bad behavior is going to stop doesn't mean that the emotional and verbal abuse is going to stop. And people can say sorry, and keep doing what they're doing. It's why I don't like the phrase forgive and forget, because I can forgive all day long. But it'd be foolish to forget that certain people treated me some type of way. So we've talked about what is psychological safety? What is the toxic work environment, what to do if you're in those types of environments? How to surround yourself with support? How was an l&d professional or leader? You can help contribute to the psychological safety of your organization? And we've talked about how to deal with people who admit that they've made us feel psychologically unsafe. But what we haven't dealt with is the people in between the people who are neither the the victims of a toxic work environment, nor are they the bullies, but they're the people who are apathetic. They're the people who would listen to this episode and say, This is ridiculous. Why should I care about someone on my team's feelings, this is way too much worry about how someone's perceiving me. And it's way too much emphasis on emotions and feelings. And, and young people these days, I've seen this, so many times on LinkedIn, millennials care too much about their emotions, and they want people to pander to their emotions. And I think that if that is your opinion, then you've either not dealt with, or you've not experienced a psychologically unsafe work environment. You've either learned how to shove it down, so that you're not processing it, and you're not facing it head on, or that you've been very lucky. And you've not truly experienced an environment that made you feel scared, or anxious. Or, like you had to lie, or frustrated, or angry or terrified that when you go to the bathroom at work, and you're walking back to your desk, that you'll run into the person who talks garbage behind your back constantly. I used to hate going to the bathroom at work, because I was afraid I would run into the person who was constantly trying to tear me down. That's horrible. That's a horrible place to be in. And it's real. My fear was real. My anxiety was real. I was making my poor partner miserable. Because every night I would come home and just obsess over how bad I felt over how anxious I felt over all of the tiny little pinpricks that had been done to me that I felt were unfair. And listen, I'll be honest, not all of those things were likely done intentionally. I think some of them definitely were in hindsight, but because my mind had already started going and I already felt unsafe, then it becomes every action that the person does is to make you feel unsafe, whether that's true or not. And it becomes a really terrible place to be. And so I truly hope that none of you have felt that way. But I'm sure that some of you have as you're listening to this. And I hope that by listening to this you, number one, don't feel so alone. Number two, have some thoughts and ideas about how to create a more psychologically safe work environment. And number three, go back and challenge people. Challenge your organization. If they're open to it, if they're not toxic, start challenging. Start sharing those ideas. If you have a psychologically safe work environment, keep perpetuating that throughout your organization. And I'll say it one more time. Everyone, every person deserves to feel that their ideas are important that their work is important that it's okay if they make a mistake, and that it's okay for them to share ideas and to come to work as their true authentic self every day. Thanks again for joining me on the blog. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with friends and review us on your favorite podcast platform. I hope you'll tune in again soon.