Psychologically safe communication isn’t something that you’ve necessarily given a lot of thought to. First, though, I’ll explain what I’m talking about when I say “psychologically safe communication”. Broadly, I’m speaking about being mindful of the way that we communicate to employees and colleagues. For example, maybe you send Sally a quick email at the end of the day that says: “Sally, I’d like to meet with you first thing tomorrow morning. Please stop by my office at 8am.” Sally gets the email and then frets all night that she is going to get fired in the morning. Sally shows up at your office door looking like she hasn’t slept. You then proceed to ask Sally if she would be willing to give you a hand planning the staff bbq. You can see the look of relief sweep across Sally’s face. Now, this may seem like an extreme example – and hopefully it is – but it gives you a sense of what psychologically safe communication is. In this case, the following email would have been better: “Hi Sally, I’d like to have a quick chat with you tomorrow morning to talk about the summer staff bbq. I could really benefit from your great organizational skills! Stop by my office when you get in in the morning. Enjoy your evening.” Had Sally received this email instead, chances are she would not have had a sleepless night.
If you know your employees, you will also know that different people respond or react to messages in different ways. As such, it’s important to customize your message depending on the receiver. As well, if you work side by side with someone every day, they will understand the tone of your email in a way that an employee whom you don’t work with every day won’t. It takes a conscious effort to change the way that you send your messages. Afterall, we each have a style that is natural to us and it may take effort to adjust this. For instance, your communication approach may be to keep things succinct and to the point. There is nothing wrong with this; however, in the above email with Sally it would have been beneficial to add a few more details – and would have resulted in decreased anxiety for her! As well, if you are the boss, it’s important to also keep that in mind. Being a leader brings with it an automatic power differential. The way that you communicate is critical. Sally, for example, may not have been panicked by receiving the short, one line email from a colleague. However, receiving it from her boss elicited stress.
In summary, be mindful of your communication. Now, there are of course times when messaging needs to be direct and to the point; however, this can still be done in a respectful and appropriate way. As a leader, you can model the way to psychologically safe communication. This will contribute to having engaged employees who feel comfortable in the environment in which they work.