By Heidi Turner,
With a background in television news production, non-profits, and education, Karen Palmer is uniquely qualified to talk about the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Karen’s experience as a producer and manager in journalism, the founding director of operations of a charter elementary school in Brooklyn, NY, and an operations consultant led her to create a professional coaching practice where she supports leaders in building authentic and productive communication with their teams. Karen is also an advocate for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
As an operations consultant, Karen focuses on providing direct assistance and counsel to support student learning and improve staff performance at elementary, middle, and high schools in New York State. In her coaching practice, she also works with leaders in business, law, arts, medicine, and the media. During her career as a television news producer, she won four Emmy Awards and shared a Peabody Award and a Headliner Award.
Karen has worked with numerous advocacy, social service, and educational organizations including the New York Women’s Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and the World Science Festival. She currently leads workshops on psychological safety and moderates an ongoing series of panels that explore the intersections between race and food allergy.
Karen is a Subject Matter Expert for Conscious Inclusion Company, where she leads sessions on the importance of psychological safety in the workplace.
How did you move into coaching leaders and focusing on psychological safety?
I spent over 20 years working in television news. When I moved into serving non-profits, one thing that struck me was that many leaders in the non-profit sphere didn’t have the same opportunities to develop their skills as those in the corporate sphere. They couldn’t step into leadership from a place of confidence. They didn’t have the same opportunities to get advice and support. And I felt like I could identify with that, from my own experiences as a leader. So, I started asking how I could provide the kind of support that I wished I’d had. That’s what led me into coaching.
What is psychological safety?
The term “psychological safety” was created by Amy Edmondson back in 1999: she studies organizational behavior science at Harvard Business School. Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It’s a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.
Edmondson said that psychological safety “describes a team climate characterized by …trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable in being themselves.”
Why is psychological safety at work important?
There’s a lot that we’re going through as a society right now, especially given the ongoing impact of COVID, continuing political tensions, and the racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s death. People need appropriate space and support to work through their feelings and thoughts. If there’s one thing I’m hearing over and over, it’s people saying when they go back to work, they don’t want to be working the way they were before they left. Employees may be okay with the job itself, but they’re saying they need to decrease the stress, or increase flexibility, or have their voices heard and respected in a way that they weren’t before. Something has to change.
Google did a study called Project Aristotle where they looked at what made their most successful teams so successful. The biggest factor was psychological safety—the ability for any member of the team to get up, share an idea and know they won’t be punished for it. Team members believed they would be treated with respect. That was more important than anything else in determining a group’s success. Team members believed they would be treated with respect. That was more important than anything else in determining a group’s success.
People want to be heard, valued, and treated as equals, free from judgement or ridicule.
What are some important steps in fostering psychological safety at work?
Companies need to promote transparent communications and meaningful feedback between leaders and teams. Leaders need to ask people what tools and support they need to get their jobs done in a way that feels professional and satisfying.
Supervisors have to set and model ground rules of behavior that allow people to feel included and supported. Every workplace deals with internal conflict on a regular basis. It’s all about how you handle it.
Since most of us are still working in remote or hybrid mode, leaders need to be intentional in connecting with employees. In most companies, before COVID, you’d meet at the water cooler, or bump into each other in the hallway, or meet for drinks. There was an opportunity to check in. We may not be able to do this because of COVID precautions, so we need to find other ways to intentionally connect on a human level. Call your employees and genuinely ask how they’re doing and what they need.
In thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, think about this: if you as a leader are inviting someone with a different background or identity from the rest of your team into your workplace, that space must be prepared for the person to enter safely and remain there successfully. You and your team need to talk about how you got to the place where you discovered you were missing other perspectives: why has it taken so long to get there? Why hasn’t your workplace prioritized diversity? They need to know the answers to those questions before they can think about welcoming others into their space.
What are some challenges organizations face in fostering psychological safety?
Many leaders don’t understand what psychological safety is or why it matters.
There’s a real business cost to that lack of understanding. People who don’t feel psychologically safe underperform, they start to withdraw, they stop hitting deadlines. They aren’t engaged. They may lash out on social media. And if that discord becomes public, it can damage your reputation.
Leaders need to ask themselves: “Do I understand what it takes to make the people who report to me feel safe?” And if they don’t know, they need to start figuring that out.
I had one client say to me, “Why should I worry about people’s feelings at work? People just need to do their job.” I asked him, “How important is it to you that they do their job well?” The sad truth is, you can get some people to do anything if you scare them enough. But will they deliver the quality of the work you want; will they stick around long enough to get the job done? And how important is it to you to be the kind of leader you would want to follow? Remember the old saying: employees don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad bosses.