Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about creating a psychologically safe workplace culture

Published on 28/01/2020

As work becomes busier, deadlines tighter, and pressure to do more with less becomes the rule rather than the exception, it is not surprising that the “self-care” movement has become more popular than ever. But as organizations continue to require their people to deliver more with less, “self-care” strategies can only go so far. In this Five Good Ideas session, Christine Yip, founder of Organizations for Impact, will share her own personal experience surviving and thriving in high pressure work environments, as well as practical strategies individuals, managers, and organizations can put into practice to “walk the talk” in creating psychologically safe workplaces.

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Five Good Ideas

  1. Start with compassion – for yourself and those you work with
  2. Communicate with courage
  3. Find the “Positive Deviants” and share learnings
  4. Role model and reward behaviours that promote trust, empathy and support
  5. Set up accountability mechanisms to foster a culture of psychological safety



Full session transcript

Today I will discuss psychological safety and how we create a culture of psychological safety. It starts with us as individuals, and it impacts how our people managers manage and how our organizations manage. So it’s really a collective, shared responsibility to create a psychologically safe workplace.

The concept of psychological safety at work is a very close cousin to the not-for-profit decent work movement. It has a lot of overlap with it. It talks about it a little bit differently.

The term psychological safety became popularized a few years ago after Google did research on team effectiveness across their firm. They looked at around 150 teams to try to understand what the factors were that contributed to successful teams. What they found was multiple factors that led to that, but they found this concept of psychological safety was actually the key differentiator between teams that were effect and teams that were not.

The way they defined it was it’s the shared belief within teams that you are safe to speak up, to voice alternative views, to ask for help, and to take risks and fail. This was the idea from a Google perspective, which is very centered around innovation, which is consistent with the culture of Google.

Then there’s this other, more Canadian research and discussion around psychological safety that’s going on as well. The Canadian Mental Health Commission, along with Great-West Life, a few other partners, and some psychologists at Simon Fraser University, have done a lot of work around psychological health and safety from an occupational health and safety lens. They take more of a risk management approach to it. They define psychological safety as the organization’s taking reasonable effort to actually reduce the risk to the psychological wellbeing of their people at work. They have a national standard they’ve created with measures, policies, communication plans, and everything.

So that’s the other side of the coin, and I see them as two sides of the same coin: to create an environment where people feel safe to speak up, to create an environment where people feel that their organization is investing in efforts to make sure that their psychological safety is safe at work, or their psychological wellbeing is safe at work, and to create an environment where people feel that, when they go into work, they’re not at risk from a psychological standpoint.

I think all of those things are consistent across the two definitions, and that’s really what creating a psychologically safe culture is all about.

The next question is “why do we care?” And I’m sure everybody in this room already knows this, but I think it’s worth talking about. Creating the case for change for this is really important, because although we all feel it and we talk about it every day, in order to get action and to see real change, we sometimes have to convince people with data and external insight on why it’s important.

We know for individuals it’s important. We know that 30 per cent of individuals who have a mental health illness cite workplace stress as the number one reason for it. We know that it’s important, it has impacts for organizations. The Conference Board of Canada said that their companies lose $16.6 billion a year from absenteeism due to workplace stress and toxic work factors.

Then you could think of all of the other organizational impacts. You have risk of disability claims, you have risk of litigation. There’s a lot of work around the Canadian national standard looking at this, and there’s a lot more precedence for organizations to be at risk of employees taking them to court over psychological safety, which in the past might have just been physical safety.

Then it’s important for society. There’s a researcher in Stanford, who recently published a book called Dying for a Paycheck. He’s an organizational psychologist, which is similar to my background, and he did a study that looked at all of the toxic workplace factors that someone could experience, such as job insecurity, a lack of perception of justice and equity at work, lack of control over how you do your job, and not getting enough feedback or recognition for the efforts that you’ve put in.

He looked at all these factors and what the impact of these factors was on the health of Americans. He found that five to eight per cent of health care costs in the U.S. can be attributed to toxic workplace factors, and he went further and estimated that there are probably around 120,000 excess deaths a year because of the impact that toxic workplace practices have on our health.

When I started my career I worked as a human capital management consultant, so working with companies to help improve, and help managers to manage people. With that sort of experience and my own research, I came up with these five good ideas.

I want to start the discussion just to contextualize why I left more traditional management consulting and decided I wanted to focus my career on helping companies build more psychologically safe cultures. This is rooted in my own personal experience, living and surviving, and then figuring it all out.

As I said, I started my career about ten years ago in a global management consulting firm. I was fresh out of grad school, I was really excited to start applying everything that I knew, and I really just hit the ground running. This idea of “it’s not a race, it’s a marathon,” that was just not in my head. I just raced out the gate and I took everything in.

Very quickly, I was 200% involved in my work, engaged 100%. I loved what I did, I was passionate about what I did. When I wasn’t on my client site working, I was training new consultants. When I wasn’t doing that, I was doing all the corporate social responsibility work.

I was also engaged in thought leadership work, I was doing business development stuff, I was doing practice development stuff, and when I wasn’t doing that in the evenings, I was at events for work, doing whatever it is that you do at events for work, but there were a lot of them.

Everything was good, and I was taking it all in. The dark side of that culture didn’t really show up until about a year in. I got staffed on a project in Vancouver, and it was with a lead that had a reputation for having pretty poor work habits. He was the guy who would get his whole team to take a two-hour lunch or a three-hour dinner and then expect everyone to work all night with him. He definitely didn’t have boundaries between work and life. He didn’t really have much life outside of work because of his own years of toxic workplace practice. So if you were on his team, you became his life, and you really had no choice.

So I was on this project with him and it was a very short, high-intensity project, and as the project progressed, he was getting us to take these long lunches. In my head I was thinking, “why are we doing this if we’re just going to be working late?” But I was too afraid to say anything. I was afraid to say anything, because as a young, junior, high-achieving person, you want to make sure you’re performing at your best.

There was also this element of how our performance was evaluated. At this firm performance evaluation happened at the end of every year. All of the project managers got into a room and they talked about every single employee that was one level below them, and they charted, they put them on a ladder. Everybody’s performance had to be on one rank of the ladder. There’s no equal, so you were either above or below your peer, and that was directly connected, through a formula, to your pay and your promotion. At these types of firms, if you’re not promoted after two years, you failed.

So this evaluation system was a part of the workplace culture. So as a junior, high-achieving person in this scenario with this leader, I’m not going to speak up. We ended up pulling a couple of all-nighters, and I was tired, but I sucked it up, and I pushed through.

Then the next project came right after. I got staffed right away, another very high-intensity project. One of those projects where you think “this is a new client, we really need to impress them, so let’s roll up your sleeves,” and then clear out your calendar, and you just work.

I remember during that time, my dog died, and I started to feel really resentful that I couldn’t grieve, because I was just so busy. That project ended, the next project happened right after. Once again a high intensity project working with a global leadership team, knowing that you need to impress them.

By this time, I knew I was exhausted. I was becoming very resentful, but I couldn’t say anything, because of my fear and the system of evaluating sat in the back of my mind.

I remember the day that [the project] ended, and that I don’t want to say I cracked, but I reached the end of my rope. I had just finished that project and for once, I was not staffed on another project, so I was really excited to just relax.

The partner came to me and she said, “Christine, I know you’re done, but I could really use your help on this deck for this client. Can you do it?” This was a Thursday or a Friday. So I said, “Okay, one more weekend.”

There’s that voice in your head when you’re working late and you’re working weekends, that says “once more.” So I did it, I went in to work, and I gave it back to her, and she said, “Christine, this is great. One more weekend of work, and then you’re good.” I just remember looking at her, turning around, walking away, going to where my team was, and I just started crying. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.”

A couple of days passed, I did [the work], but I did it knowing that this was it. The little voice in my head that continued to say, “You can do this, you could move through,” it just stopped, it wasn’t there anymore.

I went to [the partner] and I said, “Listen, I have to quit, I can’t do this anymore.” She looked at me, she said, “You know, Christine, I know you’re tired, but you know, it’s you, you take on too much.” That was hurtful, but at the same time, I think I was too tired to even react.

So I left, and I took a few years of recovery time. I ended up traveling to South Africa and getting involved with a lot of social organizations there. That’s when I ended up going to England and learning about social policy and really needing to find my purpose again.

The truth was, I loved my job, and I always describe it to people this way: imagine spaghetti is your favorite meal, but you’re forced to eat spaghetti every day, like morning to night, five times a day. Eventually, you can’t eat spaghetti anymore. You don’t even want to see it. That’s how it was.

So I left my career path, and years later, I ended up back in consulting. I went to another firm with a very similar culture, but after going through that recovery time and really reflecting on what was going on and who I am, and a couple of years of therapy, I went back with a new perspective, and I changed the way I worked.

I had value in myself and I was able to stand up for myself when I thought something was wrong, that gut feeling when you feel like “this isn’t right, but maybe it’s fine, maybe it’s just me.” I started to be able to really differentiate when that voice, the reality of that voice. I communicated more, I spoke up, I talked about boundaries, I spoke with my lead about when something was too much, and things went well. I was able to manage a nine-to-five in this very gruesome, grueling culture, and do it well.

But I also had to isolate myself. I stayed on my client’s site, I didn’t engage in any activities with the firm. I couldn’t go to any team events because I knew, every time I interacted with someone, I could feel that culture and that pressure coming down on me.

When I reflected about what happened to me ten years ago, there were things that I could have done differently. There were a lot of things my managers could have done differently, and there were a lot of things that the organization could have done differently.

When I talk to clients and I work with clients, I find that every single person is feeling this weight and pressure of the organization on their psychological wellbeing, whether it’s a toxic boss, or an unrealistic set of demands, or a complex project that you really don’t feel like you have any support in. Everyone’s feeling it, and organizations know it’s a problem.

As of right now, a lot of solutions that are out there are focused around having more stress management, like yoga and meditation, which are all really great. But the one thing I think is that if we only focus on those as the solution, we’re going to miss this huge other side. Because focusing just on [those activities] puts it on the backs of all of us.

It says, “okay, things are going to stay the same. Just calm down. Just learn how to manage.” I think the change that’s required is a culture shift. It’s a culture shift in what we value at work, it’s a culture shift of what we praise as good work, and it’s also a little bit of skill development.

Now that technology is adjusting what work is and where work happens, the lines between life and work are much more blurred, and our need to start managing it in a little more intentional way is more so now than it was before, and we need that skillset to be able to manage through that.

My five good ideas go from talking about what we can do as individuals to what managers can do, to what organizations can do, which I think is the shared responsibility that we all have.

So my first idea is compassion. Compassion for yourself, and compassion for others. This is really about learning to value yourself. The assumption is that we cannot create a compassionate environment that fosters psychological safety if we are not compassionate for ourselves.

If I look back to what happened in my own story, one of the reasons why I couldn’t speak up is that I felt my value was based on how much I produced. And if I didn’t produce, then I wouldn’t be as valuable, and maybe I would lose my job, and if I lost my job, what value would I have?

I know, as not-for-profit sector leaders, this idea of inherent value isn’t new to you. But I think it’s much easier to talk about when you’re helping someone else versus when you’re going through things day-to-day, and to reflect on your reactions to things. When you feel afraid or that wall that’s keeping you from standing up for yourself or standing up to your team, that it really is about how you value yourself and what you think creates value in you.

After a lot of reflection, I said this to a client I was talking with the other day. If you told me ten years ago I would be telling people about the power of looking in the mirror before you leave for the day, or meditating and remembering who you are, reminding yourself of your strengths and who you are at your best self, I would say, “no way, that sounds so hokey.”

But the power of doing that, it changes the way you approach the world. You approach the world out of a place of high esteem for yourself, of contribution rather than fear, and the way you solve problems that come at you completely shifts.

I want to talk quickly about this strategy that you could use, it’s from positive psychology literature, and the activity is called relational self-affirmation. So they’ve done studies to look at how effective this activity is in creating resistance, helping people create, be better problem-solvers, manage stress better, and it even shows positive outcomes for your physical health as well.

There’s a TED Talk about this. The research is by a fellow named Dan Cable from London Business School, and it’s a very simple activity. Either you, or you have five people that know you well, write down a story of when you were operating at your best, when the way you were operating was consistent with your values, the values that you are proud of, and what the situation was when you operated at your best.

That simple activity has been shown, when they’re testing it out using randomized control trials, that the groups who do that activity versus the groups who don’t, when you look at them six to eight months later, the outcomes that you see, the satisfaction with work, the resiliency that you see over time, there’s a significant difference. So it is a powerful activity.

I want to give you guys that, because I think that’s something that you could write on a cue card and put it in your top drawer. When you get triggered or something’s stressing you out, or you’re in that toxic environment, you could read that and remind yourself of who you are despite everything, and the value that you have. So that’s the first idea.

The second idea is about communicating with courage, and this is about finding your voice. Again, if I look back to why I wasn’t able to speak up, it is because it’s scary. You’re afraid if you ask a question that might look stupid, or if you say you can’t do something, it’s something that people are going to think less of you. Once I started speaking up, I realized that I could actually negotiate my time with my manager a little bit better. If I thought something was too much, I didn’t have to feel anger that was like, “oh, how dare they give me this?” Or silent resentment as I just suffered through it. It could be a conversation where you say, “Hey, you know, I think this might be too much. How can we redistribute this?” Or when you’re having a conflict with somebody at work, having those conversations.

It sounds easy to do, but that stuff takes courage, and it’s very much related to the compassion, which I start with that. Having that compassion for yourself allows you to have those conversations.

I had a client recently when I was brought in to do some management training. They were a small, growing research organization, and they were concerned that their leaders or their managers were not leading people appropriately. They weren’t building, they weren’t taking the time to develop their people and build a pipeline of future leaders. They asked me to do just some basic management training, teach them how to give coaching, give feedback, and to communicate with their team. After a couple sessions, it became very clear that these people were not avoiding coaching and giving feedback because they didn’t have the skills, but because they did not have the time.

The organization’s mantra was “we have a can-do attitude,” and for them that means “we say yes to everything the client wants, even if our team can’t handle it, and we just burn ourselves out until we do it.” As I was progressing through the project, I thought, there’s no point in continuing to teach these skills. I said to my client, “What your team needs is to learn how to negotiate, and to learn that not saying yes, or just saying yes and moving forward, isn’t saying no.”

It’s actually an easy thing to just say yes and get things done and suffer in silence. It’s the harder thing to stand up for yourself and figure out, “how can we get creative about making this work?” So that’s the second idea.

The third idea is around finding positive deviants and sharing their learnings. This is really about training those key skills, and finding the pockets within your organization where people are creating those psychologically safe spaces for themselves and for their teams.

When I went back into consulting I changed the way I work. I started to communicate more, I had compassion for myself, and I was able to manage my time in a better, in a different way. I saw some of my colleagues, whom I saw as exactly where I was ten years before, and I realized, in an organization, in such a high burnout culture, there are very simple skills or conversations that we could have to help people know when they should push back and when they need to start managing their schedule.

Why aren’t we training them on this? Why aren’t we having a discussion right when people walk in the door saying this is going to be a difficult work environment, here are some skills that you need to have, some skills in negotiating your time, some skills in having difficult conversations for you to be able to thrive here.

I always go back to a conversation I had with an old colleague of mine. She’s a VP at one of the big banks and she was telling me how the culture there is about meetings. Everyone gets invited to every single meeting, and no matter if you need to be there or not. This is a big issue, meetings. And emails, everyone gets cc’d on emails. This was completely draining her team and her as well.

Her boss did not understand why it was not necessary for her whole team to be at one meeting where only one person in the room needed to make a decision. So what she had decided to do, she told me, “Well, what I do is, after these meeting invitations get sent, I sit down with my team members and we go through their calendars, and I give them that permission to not go. Then I talk to the person who sent the invitation, and I explain who is attending so that they know.”

She’s doing that on her own. The people who are doing these things, they’re not standing on a mountaintop yelling them out, because they’re often doing them against the dominant culture, and that takes courage and that’s really difficult. So when I was talking to her, I thought, why can’t we find these positive deviants? Find the practices that are working for them, put them into some training, and find a way to amplify and scale those up. Having those little moments of safety, if we could amplify them, we can create culture change from the bottom up.

The fourth idea is around role modeling and rewarding the behaviours that are consistent with creating a psychologically safe culture, and this is really for the people-leaders and managers in the room.

I teach change management at Schulich, and if anybody knows anything about change management, we always talk about the power of just leaders talking, or walking the talk, and if you want people to change, you have to change first. This is a very obvious concept, but it’s actually really hard to get leaders to do. When I was working in that environment ten years ago, I had no role models who were actually working safely. I look back at all of my leads, and they are all working the exact same way.

The CEO of that organization, a few months ago, I saw that he stepped down and that he was retiring. Two weeks later, I saw that he died of cancer. To me it was so sad, he only gave himself two weeks, because he was working the whole time. He was CEO, and in those kinds of firms, these people are put up as demigods or something like that.

So there were no role models, and in regards to rewarding behaviour, I was working in such a toxic way, and everybody should have seen it. All of my managers saw it, but they knew they had good output, so they were not saying anything. I was being rewarded. I would do overnight shifts, I would sacrifice everything, and I was getting rewarded.

I remember some of my colleagues, who were working really well, but they were actually leaving and they had a life outside of work, and I remember them saying to me, “Well, we’re not getting the same ratings as you.” I just remember looking at them and saying, “But you’re happy, and I’m not.” It’s this backwards way that we’re rewarding people.

So an example I want to use is a client I had way back when. His name was Jim and he was an operations guy in a company in Calgary. He was just one of those natural people managers. He just got people. I remember it was a busy time. It was a busy time for their finance department, and we all knew that they were probably going to be working late during this period of time. He was very empathetic as time progressed. He said, “Guys, I know, it’s going to be a late night, but you know, I totally get it.” These little moments of just empathy released a little bit of the pressure on people.

I remember the night came where the whole finance team was working late. I was not on finance but I was there because I was working all the time, and Jim had no reason to stay. The tasks that needed to be done were finance tasks. There was nothing for him to do. But he stayed. He stayed all night with his team, until they were, maybe not until they were done, but he stayed for enough time to show that support and to show that he was there for them. I’ll never forget how powerful that was, because that creates a contagious effect of how we’re there for each other, and that creates trust between your manager and you, and it creates a sense of fairness. Those are key things for creating a psychologically safe workplace.

Then the last idea is around how organizations can invest. So even if you have your self-compassion and you’re creating a compassionate environment for everyone around you, you’re communicating, you’re being courageous, and you’re having those tough conversations, you have some training and skill building going on, and you have people role modeling, how do we make sure that we’re actually getting there in the long run?

That’s about these broader organizational accountability mechanisms, which I see as how are we measuring that we’re actually creating a psychologically safe workplace. Do we have the policies in place, do we have the governance structures, the committees that are coming together? How do we put in those structural, systemic things to make sure that we’re actually being held accountable for it?

Today one of the main measures of employee attitudes is engagement. When I was in my organizational psychology graduate school back in 2008, that was still an academic discussion. ten years down the road, most CEOs and most senior level executives are looking at an engagement score to see how we’re doing. I would love to see us reframe how we’re measuring employee attitudes, taking a psychological safety lens.

We know what type of workplace creates this psychologically safe culture. We know that it’s a workplace that effectively manages demands with resources and efforts. We know that it’s a workplace that provides people with a sense that they have control and influence over how their work gets done. We know it’s a workplace that provides feedback and recognition, that matches the effort that’s being given, and just providing feedback regularly, especially during those intense times. We know that’s the organization that there’s support available, both support from your manger as well as social support.

I think that’s a really key thing too now, because as we’re starting to work more virtually, research is exploring the relationship between social isolation and burnout. We need that social support in order to buffer some of those hard times, and the perceptions of justice at work. So our decisions that are made fair is the process to which decisions are made transparent. We know that these are the types of things that create psychologically safe workplaces. We should be measuring them.

Those are the five good ideas. What can you do tomorrow, what’s the big takeaway? I think there are three things.

As individuals, you could start by going home and writing your story of when you were at your best, and you can make sure to keep it with you and use it on a day to day.

This morning I woke up and I did a little meditation, and it brought up some of the memories that I have stored in which I’m really proud of who I am. I’m able to enter the world, into a scary situation where I’m talking to 300 plus people, and be able to do it out of a place of contribution rather than fear.

Second thing: start a conversation. Start a conversation with your team, with your colleague next to you, maybe with the whole organization. Talk about the concept of psychological safety, what does it mean, what are the gaps, where can we do better?

If you’re an organizational leader or an HR director, I really encourage you, if you haven’t already, go to the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety website, because the resources that they have and the documentation that they have, you can just take that, soup to nuts, and start to implement all of the governance structure. There are communication plans, there are measures, there are surveys, everything you need to start actually moving in this direction. Look at what’s in the document, look at what they recommend, and see where you are, and start to try to close those gaps.

I think to create a psychologically safe workplace culture requires us all. We have to be able to change as individuals, as people managers. We have to be able to create those safe environments. And as organizational leaders, we need to put in the infrastructure and systems in place so that there is accountability.

For me, when I look at what makes a successful organization, it’s an organization that can effectively balance efforts around productivity, and efforts around providing support.

And I talk about it as this is the yin and yang. The productivity is the action, and the yin is the stuff, the soft stuff that we need in order to be a whole person, as well as a whole organization, that can achieve their objectives, not just in the short term, running like it’s a sprint, looking at it from a marathon perspective, and looking at that long-term sustainability.

I think if we do that and we focus our lens on how we balance those two things across our organization, productivity, and support, I think we’ll create organizations that are more successful, and I think we’ll create organizations where people are happier. That’s really the ultimate goal of everything that I’m trying to do – make people happier at work.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Christine Yip

Founder & Managing Director, Organizations for Impact

Christine Yip is the Founder of Organizations for Impact, a management consultancy that works with leaders across sectors to build more inclusive, psychologically safe, and empowering workplace cultures. Previous to this, Christine worked as a Manager at both Accenture and KPMG consulting practices, and as a social policy researcher at the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre and the London School of Economics’ Centre for Analysis and Social Exclusion. She holds a Masters Degree in Social Policy and Planning from the London School of Economics and a Masters in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the University of Guelph. She also teaches Change Management at York’s Schulich School of Business.