Does your team struggle with conflict?
Psychological safety training can boost trust and collaboration.
Whether dealing with workplace disputes or a family feud, we’ve all found ourselves in the midst of conflict. In fact, some of these groups may be so argumentative that conflict is not just expected, it’s the norm.
Even though most of us long for a peaceful environment to build strong relationships, very few of us know how to make that happen.
When we spend a lot of time in tense, conflict-ridden situations, it can be difficult to see a way out. That’s where conflict resolution training comes in. But before professionals can even begin to explore the root cause of conflict, they need to cultivate a culture that creates psychological safety.
Conflict Causes Nervous System Upset
The “fight, flight, or freeze” response that allowed our ancestors to survive in the wild is still at work in our brains today. But as it turns out, according to Robert Gass and Judith Ansara, authors of the Managing Your Triggers Toolkit, our nervous system cannot distinguish between threats to our ego and threats to our lives.
This is why you may experience racing heart, shallow breathing, or even “tunnel vision” when you are involved in conflict. In fact, the “fight, flight, or freeze” response even causes our prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for logic and decision making—to go temporarily offline.
Unless you work in a zoo, conflict probably doesn’t involve predators like lions or tigers. However, it doesn’t mean you don’t experience this type of nervous system upset in the workplace.
You may have experienced fight, flight, or freeze in a workplace setting where, for example, someone publicly shut your idea down without giving you or your idea proper respect. Perhaps you felt shamed during a meeting with others when your director mentioned your failure to meet a goal. You might even have this response triggered from receiving an inflammatory or shaming email. Or perhaps a co-worker made a demeaning comment about you either to your face or behind your back.
We are imperfect and in the course of interaction with our team members, we may make mistakes due to our insensitivity to the needs of others or our lack of knowledge on how to communicate without harming relationships. These kinds of events happen on a regular basis, but without the foundation of psychological safety, conflict can cause issues to “fester,” taint the workplace culture, and ultimately lead to employee turnover.
If you have cultivated a culture that has psychological safety at its core, however, these inevitable “bumps in the road” can be more easily navigated.
What Is Psychological Safety?
Google’s Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the most important element of the high performing teams they studied. But what exactly is psychological safety?
In her book The Fearless Organization, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a team climate characterized by internal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Essentially, it’s when all team members feel free to share and receive ideas, even when those ideas are contrary to their own beliefs.
During psychological safety training, however, it’s sometimes helpful to talk about what psychological safety is not.
It’s NOT about being nice.
Creating psychological safety is not about minding our manners or making sure that everyone “gets along.”
Instead, it’s about being open to the exchange of ideas and even welcoming productive disagreement when necessary.
It’s NOT a personality factor.
Psychological safety training is not just for people who are “sensitive.” Studies have shown that everyone is affected by conflict the same, regardless of their personality.
Being able to collaborate with a group is a skill that benefits everyone.
It’s NOT another word for trust.
Being able to trust your coworkers or family members is a key component of strong relationships, but it is not the same as psychological safety.
In a psychologically safe environment, members feel safe to say what they need to say, even if they cannot trust the others to do what they say they will do.
It’s NOT about lowering standards.
Psychological safety training teaches us to hear opposing viewpoints with respect—not accepting those viewpoints as your own.
We can expect the best when we feel comfortable talking about the worst.
Building Psychological Safety
Research reveals that two team behaviors/attributes that support psychological safety are conversational turn-taking, meaning team members share “air time” equally, and high social sensitivity, meaning they are able to intuit how others are feeling based on non-verbal cues, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
Add in the superpowers of vulnerability and unconditional positive regard, and you are on your way toward building a “container” conducive to helping your team perform at its best.
Tools and techniques to support these team “superpowers” are:
1. The “Principles”
Developed by the Peace and Justice Institute, the Principles for How We Treat Each Other serve as concrete reminders of what psychological safety looks like in action. These behavioral prescriptions support social sensitivity and help us self-govern in those moments when we may be feeling “spicy” and tempted to do or say something we would later regret.
During training sessions, we like to take turns reading this out loud to cement the concepts in our brains and set an expectation for the rest of the session.
2. The One- or Two-Word Mood Check-in
Checking in on mood is a way to have all voices heard and develop sensitivity to the moods and feelings of fellow team members.
Taking turns, each person provides one or two words about their mood or how they are feeling. This method provides “voices” roughly the same amount of time and also helps team members understand where each other are emotionally in that moment. This understanding may support giving others the benefit of the doubt when they are having an “off” day.
For support in this process, you may consider obtaining a Mood Meter.
3. Timed Talk
Timed Talk, adapted from the work of Peggy McIntosh and Emily Style, supports a safe space that encourages authentic and respectful sharing. This method is supported by the behavioral ground rules, the Principles For How We Treat Each Other.
During Timed Talk, participants are given equal time to share their thoughts on a question posed to the group. And should participants not want to share, they have full agency to “take a pass.”
Timed Talk balances our natural group, setting “sharing proclivities.” Those who generally talk more must spend more time listening and being present. Those who generally talk less can share without the sometimes uncomfortable experience of fighting for “airtime.”
When we work with teams in-person, we use a sand timer as a “talking piece” and during virtual processes, we use a digital timer.
At times, it can be quite uncomfortable to feel vulnerable. But as researcher Brené Brown says in her book, Dare To Lead, “We need to trust to be vulnerable and we need to be vulnerable in order to build trust.”
Remember, part of psychological safety training is learning how to make vulnerability more comfortable for everyone.
5. Unconditional Positive Regard
Unconditional positive regard (UPR) does not mean believing that everything someone says or does is okay. Psychologist Carl Rogers defined UPR as “an attitude of caring and acceptance that we express toward an individual irrespective of his or her behavior and without regard to the others’ personal standards. (emphasis mine)”
The point is not to avoid being “triggered.” Remember, “fight, flight, or freeze” is a biological response—you can’t reason your way out of it! The point of psychological safety is learning that others have our back even when we get triggered.
Resolve Conflict Peacefully
Humanity is made up of diverse individuals—each with his or her unique viewpoints, background, and opinions. Conflict is inevitable! But that doesn’t mean it has to be uncomfortable.
By creating an environment of psychological safety, your team can learn to manage conflict efficiently, increase productivity, and enhance the type of collaboration that leads to success.
At Leap Frog, we are passionate about building bridges between people and fostering a sense of community. Contact us today to see how conflict navigation can bring peace to your workplace.