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Visions Journal

Put Psychologically Safe Interactions on the Agenda in Your Workplace

Mary Ann Baynton, MSW, RSW

From the "Workplace Bullying and Harassment" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 15 (4), pp. 41-43

Interview

Most of us are aware of bullying in schools. It’s frequently talked about in the media and popular culture. Bullying in the workplace doesn’t get the same level of public attention, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

What is workplace bullying?

According to the Canada Safety Council,1 bullying at work is

  • Repeated, health or career-endangering mistreatment of one employee by one or more employees
  • A form of psychological violence
  • Often a mix of verbal and strategic insults preventing the target from performing work well

Bullying behaviour can also come from clients, customers or patients. Frustration, fear or a sense of justice may fuel this behaviour in any of us. Yet most of us don’t intentionally bully or believe we contribute to or play a role in bullying. We may be shocked or mortified to discover that we’re viewed as a bully. But good intentions may not be enough to create a psychologically safe workplace. Workplace Strategies for Mental Health has developed a process that goes to the heart of the matter.

Compliments of Canada Life, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health offers evidence- and practice-based tools and resources free to all Canadians.2 You can use these resources to learn and teach how behaviours in the workplace can negatively impact others, despite our best intentions. You can help establish a shared understanding of acceptable behaviours so our workplace interactions are less likely to cause distress or fear in others.

What is a psychologically safe interaction?

A psychologically safe interaction is not about always saying yes or never disagreeing. It’s not about always being cheery. Any of us could have a bad day or be unintentionally intense, dismissive or distracted. Psychologically safe interactions are interactions where
 

  • All employees feel safe to speak up about legitimate concerns in the workplace
  • Conflicts are resolved respectfully
  • When an employee makes an inappropriate comment or gesture, someone will respectfully call them on it  
  • All employees are included in productive work-related discussions

Psychologically safe interactions help to address and resolve conflicts and inappropriate behaviours quickly, respectfully and consistently.

Many workplace bullies, including those in management or union roles, aren’t aware their behaviour may be harmful to others. They think they’re being direct, passionate or simply expressing frustration. Yet others may experience their behaviour quite differently.

Have you checked your assumptions?

Sometimes a leader’s approach to delivering feedback can feel psychologically unsafe to the person who’s receiving or witnessing the feedback. Sometimes an employee’s assumptions about the intent of the feedback can be false or inaccurate. Learning how to check your assumptions before reacting is an important element of psychologically safe interactions.  

We may feel hurt by feedback because of our assumptions about another person’s intentions. We may interpret feedback as a personal attack or a lack of appreciation for our work. We may think, “Do they think I’m incompetent? Don’t they care how hard I’ve worked? Are they out to get me?” Examining the assumptions that feed these sorts of questions can help us avoid misunderstandings, inappropriate reactions and unnecessary stress.

Sometimes leaders need to give us feedback with the goal of improving our performance. In doing so, however, they should ensure a balance between driving performance and supporting psychological safety. Most of us don’t enjoy critical feedback from anyone. In workplace relationships, there may be less trust and more fear of negative consequences. Therefore, it’s even more important that critical feedback from a supervisor be delivered in a psychologically safe way.  

One approach to increasing psychological safety in the workplace is to express ahead of time how you prefer to receive critical feedback from your leader. When you consider how you want to receive feedback, think about things like format, language, style, location, body language, tone of voice and the type of feedback you favour. For example, you may prefer private emails, face-to-face meetings or weekly phone calls. Also consider when you like to get feedback. Do you prefer it immediately after a task or event, or do you like to schedule feedback at a later date? Do you want to hear what you’ve done well rather than just the things you need to work on? Being specific about what works for you can help you and your leader be more effective.

What’s moral courage—and how can it make a difference?

Another element of psychologically safe interactions is ensuring that every employee is able to intervene effectively when someone’s having a bad day or behaving inappropriately. In many workplaces, employees will freeze or withdraw when witnessing intimidating or rude behaviour, especially when the person exhibiting the behaviour has more power or is in a position of higher rank.

Learning to respectfully stop psychologically unsafe behaviour can make a huge difference in any workplace. We can call this moral courage.

When people witness what appears to be bullying in the workplace, emotional responses can vary from person to person. Some may feel angry or outraged and actually engage in the same intimidating behaviours as the bully. Others may feel sad or embarrassed for one or both people. And some may feel helpless or afraid. Not reacting at all may leave us with feelings of regret that we didn’t do anything to intervene.

When considering if we should intervene, we may worry we’ll now become the target of the bullying, or that we might be shunned by one or both individuals if they don’t appreciate our actions. By developing an accepted, agreed-upon response in advance, organizations and work groups can eliminate most of these concerns. Psychologically Safe Interactions resources help work groups to do this.

What’s next?

Psychologically unsafe behaviour in the workplace can affect us all. It can have a negative impact on the mental well-being and safety of everyone—not just those involved. Ensuring a psychologically safe workplace environment begins with a conversation about what makes a safe environment and how to commit to making positive changes. Visit www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/managing-workplace-issues/psychologically-safe-interactions for a facilitator guide, slide presentation and participant handout that supports you to address this issue.

If you need more guidance, check out some of our many other tools and resources:

About the author

Mary Ann is the Director of Strategy and Collaboration for Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

Footnotes:
  1. Canada Safety Council. (n.d.) Working with a Bully. canadasafetycouncil.org/working-bully.

  2. See www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/psychological-health-and-safety/psychologically-safe-interactions. This article draws on content from the website.

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