The Difference Between Physical Safety and Psychological Safety (and how to climb K2).

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The Difference Between Physical Safety and Psychological Safety (and how to climb K2).

K2 mountain

A safe state of mind.

Psychological safety is “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). That is: psychological safety refers to a personal state of mind of being safe in your team and amongst colleagues; it is not about being protected or shielded from bad things happening, or safe from risk. 

It’s useful to distinguish between two key types of threat – existential, and interpersonal. Psychological safety only refers to interpersonal, not existential threats. Existential threats in a business include competition, market disruption, geopolitical events, cashflow imbalances, key personnel leaving the team, and more.

Therefore existential threats are anything that could impact and affect the status or existence of the organisation, the team, or the project. Interpersonal threats by contrast are risks to status, fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, potential disrespect or even deception.

To succeed, a team needs psychological safety.

Consider a mountain climbing team halfway into the death zone on K2. If there’s a team of 10, statistically it’s almost certain that 1 or 2 of the team will die on the mountain. That’s a real existential threat.

However the reason the team is able to be up there in the first place and make the attempt without freaking out, is a huge degree of interpersonal (psychological) safety. They know that everyone else on the team totally has each others’ backs both practically and psychologically.

Reinhold Messner, one of the few mountaineers to ascend both K2 and Everest, and even make the summit without use of supplemental oxygen, takes the psychological aspect of a summit attempt far more seriously than the physical. For a team that didn’t possess a great deal of psychological safety, success in their summit attempt would be unlikely.

Reinhold Messner leadership on K2

Indeed, regarding threat, one of the first things that a leader must do with a team when building a psychologically safe and high performing unit is to be crystal clear about the challenges that you face as a team. Analogous to the threat on K2 – it’s being explicit about the fact that it could kill you, but excited and optimistic about the challenge and potential result.

Fundamentally, that’s leadership. People on your team can simultaneously be really scared about a threat, but safe on the team.

Be clear and explicit about challenges and risks.

Jacinda Adern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, demonstrated this capability in her response to the Covid-19 crisis. She was clear and explicit about the challenge that lay ahead, but optimistic about meeting it. A national poll put her government at over 80% public approval as of March 27, 2020.

Leadership involves ensuring that everyone in the organisation knows exactly what to do in order to face existential threats.

Of course, you could describe all the myriad threats and risks that your team and organisation could face, but unless you put them in context and prioritise them, they’re useless – because a team will be paralysed by indecision.

Not all risks can be mitigated either, so it’s necessary to know which risks require work to mitigate, and which ones the team simply need to be aware of. When a backlog of tasks or projects exists, a team need also to know not only what to work on, but what to work on first. And of course a team should only ever work on the top priority task – not everything can be “high priority”.

There’s no such thing as “too much psychological safety”.

In summary, it is absolutely necessary to inform the team what existential threats exist, and it’s feasible that a leader could shield a team from the “real world” too much and as a result, impact performance, but there’s no such thing as being too psychologically safe.

Fundamentally, psychological safety (an absence of interpersonal threat) is the key factor that enables teams to face serious existential threats, such as climbing K2.

To find out more about building high-performing, happy, psychologically safe teams, download the Psychological Safety Action Pack and use it in your team or organisation. Or contact me to find out more.

building and maintaining psychological safety for your team

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