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Maintaining Psychological Safety under Pressure

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When leaders are under pressure they can fall into dark side behaviours that can cause deep and lasting harm to organisation culture and psychological safety. Leaders need to be very conscious about deliberately managing their reactions and responses to pressure situations in order to avoid allowing what are often character strengths to be overused and potentially become toxic.

Helen Bartimote of Cloud Native Consultancy Container Solutions has written a blog post titled WTF Happens to Psychological Safety When the Pressure Is On? She explores research from a variety of sources which look at the importance and value of psychological safety, how strong, positive traits can be overused and become derailed when acting under pressure and how to deliberately and mindfully regulate our responses to avoid dark side behaviours.

She says that:

Psychological research tells us that external factors leading to rapid change place enormous strain on decision makers which may, in turn, lead to significant and unexpected shifts in their behaviour.

Bartimote cites research by Robert Hogan which looks at how dark side behaviours come out when stressed or ill, and often when dealing with people they perceive to have less status. According to Hogan, the dark side behaviour is the default and is kept in check through self-monitoring and self-management.

She goes on to talk about how the current situation has been highly stressful over many months and many of us are at risk of falling into the dark side behaviours. She emphasises the importance of actively working to prevent this in ourselves, and having a supportive environment where others can call us out.

Leaders who may have once been viewed as highly diligent become obsessed with detail and exhibit extreme perfectionism. Cautiously stable leaders may develop into completely avoidant, almost entirely invisible entities. Eccentrically colourful personalities may behave in extremely impulsive, erratic and irresponsible ways. The leader’s strengths now become their weakness and the question organisations need to consider is this: Will the dark side behaviours be acknowledged by followers, or will they go along with this new reality without feeling able to speak out? The answer to this question will undoubtedly influence the organisation’s ultimate success or failure.

Bartimote discusses the measures that Container Solutions have put in place to support their people and help them both recognise and manage their reactions. These include coaching in which people are encouraged to ask themselves:

  • What should I stop doing? (What do I think and feel is not working for me and others? What is my team telling me?)
  • What should I continue doing? (What do I think and feel is working well for me and others around me?)
  • What should I start doing? (What would I like to be doing that I feel unable to do? What is my team telling me I should do more of? What areas of my personality do I underuse at work?)

In a similar vein, McKinsey has published an interview (audio with transcript) in which Aaron De Smet spoke with Amy Edmondson, Richard Boyatzis and Bill Schaninger on Psychological safety, emotional intelligence, and leadership in a time of flux in which they explore what they call the leadership imperatives for our time - bringing people together, energising forward progress and reimagining normalcy. In the interview, Richard Boyatzis states that:

The degree to which leaders can manage their own stress and feelings, and the reason why emotional self-awareness and mindfulness are so important in times of crisis, is because leaders become emotional contagions, inflicting positive or negative feelings on others, whether it’s family members, friends, colleagues, or subordinates. And, although sometimes leaders may want to induce some stress into a situation to insert new energy and momentum, most of the time it’s better to engage people in positive pursuits to retain a higher level of creativity, productiveness, and engagement.

They also explore how psychological safety can be damaged, maintained and enhanced in remote working environments and point to ways leaders can support and help their teams in these times of uncertainty.

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