Cultivating Psychological Safety On Startup Teams

According to Gill Hasson and Donna Butler in Mental Health And Wellbeing In The Workplace, “People need to feel psychologically safe . . . In a team with high psychological safety, each person feels safe to take risks and be vulnerable around others. They feel comfortable expressing themselves and feel safe that no one will undermine them, embarrass or punish anyone else for bringing up problems and tough issues, for speaking out about concerns, making and/or admitting a mistake, asking a question, asking for help, or offering a new idea.” Psychological safety on teams benefits everyone.

Compassionate Leaders Make People’s Lives Better

“The more you get into leadership, the more opportunities you have to do harm due to your blind spots.” Don’t project your stuff onto your team,” says D&I expert Aubrey Blanche.

Ways you can be a compassionate leader and contribute to a culture of psychological safety include:

  • Process your own emotions, including anxiety and anger, before reacting. This includes not impulsively sending heated communications to your team, but rather sitting with your strong emotions and then communicating.
  • Understand your biases and practice respect for people’s individuality. Be aware of your own biases and work hard to check them so that you don’t inadvertently discriminate or create a hostile work environment. Everyone has biases. We all have to learn how to recognize them and not perpetuate discriminatory behavior.
  • When you make a mistake or misstep in a situation with a team member, own it and make a plan to improve. Don’t expect others to make you feel better about your mistake. For example, if you make a comment that offends someone based on identity, commit to improving and don’t make the issue about the other person.
  • Encourage your team to seek appropriate support. If something happens that violates an employee’s rights or boundaries, do not dismiss their concerns. Encourage team members to get help from HR or People Ops and be willing to help them seek those resources. In this vein, leaders often go into “hero” mode and try to solve all problems. You have limits, and you are not their therapist. Accepting this is both annoying for people who love to think they have ultimate control, and also highly freeing because it lets you be a part of the solution while knowing you’re not the only (or best) resource to resolve issues in most cases.
  • Understand that your team’s health and wellness comes above work, always. Don’t expect your team to put their wellbeing ahead of the company’s needs. Be aware that people will go through periods where they need more time off or flexibility. As long as they’re accomplishing their goals, do not fault them or cause them to feel guilty and pressure them to put their own wellbeing on hold for the company’s sake.
  • Be compassionate towards yourself. Do your own inner work with a coach, spiritual advisor, or therapist to understand your needs and communication style better so you can learn better how to work with others’ needs and styles.

Final Thoughts

Emotional maturity and compassionate leadership make a difference in people’s lives. You don’t need to be a healthcare worker or a teacher to have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing and personal development.

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This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Lead Upwards: How Startup Joiners Can Impact New Ventures, Build Amazing Careers, and Inspire Great Teams (Wiley, 2022). Pre-order your copy today.

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