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LOOKING INTO THE SHADOWS: How Turning On The Light Can Nurture Psychological Safety

“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine. There is nothing more confining than the prison we don’t know we are in.”  – William Shakespeare
An executive I am coaching recently shared his 360 data where his direct reports expressed that they didn’t feel safe around him; that his unpredictable volatility and insensitivity created an environment that was not conducive to engagement and high performance. He believed that their response was an excuse for poor performance, and they lacked a solid work ethic, using the current remote working environment to “cop out.”
It’s not easy to hear tough feedback and see our blind spots, but it’s essential in personal and professional growth. We are in an era of daily change and uncertainty. This is a time for leaders to create and protect the space for everyone to feel psychologically safe. The first step in cultivating that environment is to reflect on ourselves as leaders – and that begins with understanding and accepting those uncomfortable truths, which I refer to as shadow work. Psychological safety around us begins with psychological safety within us.
While it’s often encouraged to focus on the light, it doesn’t make the dark go away.
The dark is just on the other side, waiting for a time to show its face. And if we don’t have the courage to bring it into the light of our awareness, we can inadvertently hurt ourselves or others. Shadow work, in its simplest form, is looking inward for what we had hidden earlier in our lives, and gradually healing those aspects of ourselves. Kimberly Fosu speaks about this in her blog, Shadow Work: A Simple Guide to Transcending The Darker Aspects of Yourself.
Let’s say that a girl is born with a strong sense of self. She knows who she is; she knows what she likes and doesn’t like; she asks for what she wants and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind! She is a strong little girl, but she is raised in a family that doesn’t know what to do with her spirit and constantly tells her to tone it down because it’s “too much.”
In order to survive, she rejects the parts of herself that are strong and confident. She grows up to be quiet, sweet, and obedient. Then, when she turns forty, she doesn’t understand why her life is so painful. The truth is, she suppressed important aspects of herself and thus feels divided. She won’t be able to feel psychologically safe – or fully create safety around her – until she does her shadow work to discover and embrace who she was meant to be.
Here’s a few things we know about shadow work:
1. It takes courage to meet with your shadow. 
When you start shadow work, you may feel the resistance you felt as a child, and the desire to keep suppressing these aspects of yourself. To become aware of something, you have to choose to see it. We are unaware of the shadow in the same way we can’t see in the darkness – we often even coach children to not be afraid of the dark. Once you turn on the light of awareness and embrace the hidden aspects of yourself that seem to be extremely uncomfortable, you open your eyes to a whole new side of yourself that you had no idea existed. If you are worried about what you might find, there is probably something important you don’t want to revisit. Instead of continuing to avoid it, you can see it as one more reason to do shadow work. This work is necessary if you want to be an authentic leader and fully realize your capacity to impact the world.
2. Become aware of your shadow. 
Ask yourself: “Was I completely accepted as a child? How did I feel most of the time? What was expected of me and what behaviors and emotions were judged by the people who raised me?” Your response to those behaviors that were judged created a shadow aspect within you. The answers to these questions will open the door to what is hidden. The shadow often finds roots in your childhood. The most important step in doing shadow work is to become aware of what is concealed. Shine a light on it to bring it out of the darkness. No matter how long you avoid looking at your shadow self, it will keep manifesting into your reality until you pay attention to it. The self that is fractured seeks to become unified, and we will be presented with opportunities to see the aspects of ourselves we have suppressed, rejected, denied, and disowned. The more you become aware of your shadow self and embrace it with some compassion, the freer you are to welcome your authentic self.
3. Shadow work is about making the unconscious conscious and the unacceptable acceptable. 
We become adults and feel we should be able to handle life better, yet we often keep falling into the same unhealthy patterns. That’s because the shadow operates outside of our conscious awareness, in the form of unconscious and limiting beliefs. The goal of shadow work is integration and appreciation – fully seeing and embracing all the aspects of yourself that make you who you are. Within your wounds lie some of your greatest and most important gifts that have yet to be unearthed.
4. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.  
Acceptance is a requirement. The minute you say something about you is “bad,” you have a reason to suppress, ignore, and deny it. Once you become aware of your shadow self, don’t shame it or blame it. Instead, give it your full acceptance. Your shadow was born from non-acceptance and rejection in the first place. It was created the moment you began to push it away. Antagonizing the shadow even more only adds fuel to the fire. The shadow is part of who you are, so look at it from a place of appreciation. Everyone has gone through a difficult time in their life that created shadows within them. Make peace with your shadow so you can find peace. Shadow work is a great way to experience inner healing and transformation through self-awareness and self-acceptance.
5. Recognize – and appreciate – triggers.
Have you ever met the most gentle, sweetest, and kind person, and in the blink of an eye something happens, and this person turns into someone else? They become mean and scary; they throw a huge tantrum or freak out. The shadow part took over when they got triggered. Triggers have the power to turn lives upside down and destroy the most cherished relationships. They spark a highly charged emotional reaction and are messengers from your shadow self. They are reflections of deep unresolved wounds that you have suppressed.  See your triggers as an invitation to delve deeper into things you are unaware of.
We are constantly evolving as leaders. Our awareness evolves as well as our ability to respond to that awareness. The authentic journey is just that – a journey into becoming more fully who we are. It’s not a destination. It’s a method of travel. While working with the shadow is about integration, you can never be completely integrated. It’s a life-long journey. Embrace it with awareness and self-compassion. Doing shadow-work means coming to know and accepting these hidden aspects of ourselves that, at some point down the road, will result in authentic self-acceptance and genuine compassion for others. In the words of Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

How To Deal With a Psychologically Unsafe Workplace – The Authentic Way

For those who were able to attend our webinar on Psychological Safety we want to thank you for attending and for the overwhelmingly positive responses. If you missed it, here is the link: https://youtu.be/80oVGPcXimc
Please pass along this link to anyone you believe would find value from it. Our hope is that it will generate some productive dialogue with your team and the people in your life.
The number one question we received from the webinar is, “How do you effectively deal with a psychologically unsafe workplace?”
Here are ten suggested strategies. We get it. You’re likely busy today. If you don’t have time to read all these go straight to the last one.
We sincerely hope to see you in the upcoming Masterclass.
Know you aren’t alone. When you are in an unsafe situation and feel like you can’t be honest, it’s natural to feel isolated and alone. However, in reality, everyone meets this kind of experience at some point in their life and chances are many of your colleagues are dealing with the same experience. You’ll want to resist the tendency to create a “culture of complainers,” but it is important to create a support network – people who provide encouragement and who challenge each other to take responsibility to change.
Be honest about the avoidance and assess your investment. Reflect on how you have avoided facing the reality of the situation. Hiding is an understandable and human response, done in a variety of ways: gossiping, complaining, blaming, or simply withdrawing. Although it is safe for a while, the problem with hiding is that you stay stuck wherever you are hiding. Honestly and carefully evaluate if you are committed to facing this. It is a risk to courageously stand up in any relationship that does not feel safe. We can’t promise that this will be an easy, comfortable journey or that it will result in a transformed workplace or relationship. What we can guarantee is that you will come out of it a better, stronger person.
Connect before you expect. This is a fundamental leadership principle that we teach in all of our leadership programs. However, it doesn’t only apply to your team or to the important relationships in your life. It can also apply to people that you don’t feel safe around. Before going any further, be sure that you have done everything you can as far as encouragement, appreciation, recognition, and commitment to your work.
Identify precisely what you don’t feel psychologically safe about. Ambiguity is a formula for mediocrity. If you are going to change something, you have to shift from a vague, inarticulate emotion to a well-defined understanding of the problem. For example, do you feel judged, dismissed, or evaluated unfairly – and if so, how? Do you feel someone is bullying or harassing you – and if so, what exactly are they doing? Do you feel that someone in a position of authority is expecting something from you that compromises you in some way – and if so, what exactly are they demanding? Do you feel like your ideas are not respected and valued – and if so, how?
Distinguish between safety and security. Safety is not the same as security. Safety is external in that it originates from the environment around you; security, on the other hand, is internal. It originates from within you. While the line between the two is sometimes muddled, be careful that you don’t expect your boss to make you comfortable, secure in your position, or happy. Facing some discomfort, increasing your confidence, and growing your job satisfaction are on you, not your boss.
Face the lack of safety responsibly. Approach the person you don’t feel safe around, or your manager, with both honesty and personal responsibility. This means being as precise as possible about what is happening – without blame and without compromising who you are. Express your commitment to do your part to learn from the experience and to make the necessary changes on your end, without diminishing your self-respect.
Control what you can. It’s never a good investment of time or energy to attempt to change another person. If you set out to change someone else, you’re destined for frustration and despair. It’s simply not realistic. That said, although we can’t completely control the world around us, we can influence how we act within it and the way we react to it. Each person’s behavior impacts the formation of an organization’s culture, and your small, seemingly insignificant contribution does matter, even though its impact might not be immediately apparent.
Ask for an agreement. While listening to the response to your concerns and requests, at some point you need to identify a clear request and get a well-defined agreement as to whether the person you don’t feel safe around will make the necessary changes. What is within your sphere of influence is to identify a request and seek an agreement to respond to that desire.
Weigh your options. If there is no good will, the responsibility lies on you to assess whether it supports your self-respect to stay in that relationship. One option is to leave. Another is to decide to leave at a later date. Another option is to stay as authentic as you can be and remain in the relationship even if it isn’t 100% safe. Another option is to continue to hide in a toxic situation and avoid facing the reality. What’s important is to recognize that the choice lies in your hands.
Assess your growth – and persist. Every challenge creates a growth opportunity. While you may find yourself saying, “Enough already! I’ve had enough growth opportunities this past year to last a lifetime!” keep your chin up and keep walking. Know that if you are committed to staying authentic, growth will be your reward. Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish economist and diplomat who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, put it this way: “When the morning’s freshness has been replaced by the weariness of midday, when the leg muscles quiver under the strain, when the climb seems endless, and suddenly, nothing will go quite as you wish – it is then that you must not hesitate.”
A psychologically unsafe workplace is not something anyone should have to tolerate, but unfortunately this is the reality for far too many. For committed leaders, creating a psychologically safe workplace is among the most important steps you can take. For those grappling with how to deal with the situation, sometimes the best you can do is to honestly face your emotions and find a residue of growth. What’s important is your own self-respect. Don’t let anyone take this from you.
Feel free to reach out to us for support or guidance.

CREATING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE WORKPLACES – It Will Depend on All of Us

There are people in our world who do not feel safe because of the color of their skin. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their gender. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation. This has to stop. It’s time to decide, once and for all, that inequality and this kind of fear are unacceptable.
Living without fear begins with the way we raise and educate our children, relate to each other in our communities, and approach each other in our workplaces. Why not start with the realization that there are people in our society who do not even feel safe coming to work. They don’t feel safe to speak honestly, to offer ideas, or to be themselves. They fear that sharing concerns and mistakes will mean embarrassment or retribution; that if they are honest, they will be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They fear asking questions when they are unsure of something. They sit on their hands, stay within the lines, underperform and become dissatisfied. When people are afraid, they stay dangerously silent, they disengage, they lie, and they leave if they can. Or worst of all, they quit and stay.
Far too many managers – both knowingly and unknowingly – still believe that fear is what motivates. Too many managers are unaware of how unacknowledged stress and anxiety breeds fear around them. Brain science has amply demonstrated that fear inhibits learning, productivity, engagement, innovation, and fulfillment.
As we emerge and re-engage from this pandemic, the need for people to feel safe as they face uncertainty and anxiety is more important than ever. And a great opportunity lies in front us to reset the compass and create fearless organizations and lives. Let’s decide to change the world by creating safe, authentic places for people to live and work. Here are seven strategies:
1. Take 100% accountability. The issue of fear will never recede in our world until it recedes within ourselves. Taking accountability means committing to examine the level of fear that we knowingly, or unknowingly, create around us. Changing the world starts with looking in the mirror. Taking accountability also means being willing to understand how our past impacts our perception of our current reality. Due to our reaction to past trauma, abuse, and shame, many people do not feel safe living in their own body, tainting every relationship in their life, particularly those in authority. Before blaming your boss for disrespecting you and not creating a safe workplace, understand how your past impacts the lens with which you view the world. Changing the world means taking accountability for facing, healing, and coming to peace with our past. While organizations are accountable for co-creating a safe environment with their employees, security must come from within each one of us individually.
2. Take care of yourself. Given the enormous level uncertainty in the world right now, resist the natural human tendency to “push through,” and instead, slow down and define what truly matters to you. Use this time to create a safe place within. Creating a safe space around you starts with feeling safe with who you are. Self-care isn’t always comfortable or easy. Self-care means respecting yourself enough to know what you need and creating disciplined routines that ensure those needs get met. Make sure you get support for yourself so you can create safety and support those around you. We ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves.
3. Bring a servant mindset and a generous spirit to your work. According to Lance Secretan, “leadership is a serving relationship that helps people grow and makes the world a better place.” It starts with being a “we” person rather than a “me” person. It’s about supporting people to get the work done rather than controlling and manipulating; and helping them be the best they can be in the process. Leadership is ultimately about caring, because leadership involves caring for people, not manipulating them. If you don’t genuinely value everyone’s unique contribution, creating a psychologically safe organization will remain elusive and superficial.
4. Be human. At this stage of the pandemic, people are experiencing a variety of emotions. They are nervous and anxious, fatigued from fear and uncertain about the future. There’s grieving, ambiguous loss, resentment, and a mixture of caution and optimism as we emerge into a new reality. There can be awkwardness with people you haven’t seen face-to-face for several months and uncertainty about new expectations and norms. Take time to listen, to be there for those you serve, and to look for opportunities to connect and have the conversations. Most of what you’ll hear you likely can’t fix. What people need to know is that you care enough to take the time. It’s a time to grant grace and exercise patience. It’s a time to practice being human.
5. Get rid of performance appraisals. Stop evaluating, grading, supervising, and treating people like children. Replace parental, disrespectful reviews with ongoing feedback, honest respectful conversations, shared ownership, two-way accountability, and mutual agreements that support both personal as well as organizational success. Be a partner with your staff, not a parent.
6. Be curious, humble, and vulnerable. Great leaders know they aren’t the smartest person in the room. They surround themselves with capable people and then take time to learn from them. They know that no one is better than anyone else. We all merely bring unique gifts to our lives and our work. Making it safe means being vulnerable and open to learn from everyone and asking for help when you need it. Being vulnerable means sharing what matters to you and listening to what matters to those around you.
7. Invite the bad news and say thank you. If you’re going to live or work together in the spirit of humanness, you are going to have to accept that there will be bad news. Great leaders don’t pretend that it isn’t there and cover up the facts. They embrace the negative and see it as a growth opportunity. Making it safe to bring the bad news isn’t about blame. It’s about ownership, personal responsibility, courage, and honesty. It takes a secure leader to be grateful that people trust you enough to bring you the hard stuff, and open enough to learn together how you’re going to work collaboratively to fix it.
In summary, creating a fearless, psychologically safe workplace does not happen by accident. Just because you see yourself as a good leader, doesn’t mean that people around you necessarily feel safe. You have to be intentional. A safe environment doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees and are polite to each other all the time. It’s about a genuine commitment to honesty and respect. It means having clearly defined expectations of each other, along with high standards and working in partnership to achieve those standards. It also means we accept that we are all human and that we are going to fall short at times and it’s okay to talk about it, learn from it, and recommit to a new course of action.
To create psychological safety, positional leaders need to make an explicit – formal and informal – space and time for open, ongoing, acceptable discussion of error, failure, and shortcomings. Conflict will inevitably arise, and we need a safe place to speak candidly about what’s bothering us, with each person taking responsibility to look at their contribution to the conflict. We need to be intentional about inviting participation and sincerely valuing every person’s input. We also need to be intentional about recognizing and expressing sincere appreciation. What we appreciate appreciates. And, perhaps above all, we need to grant grace that it takes time, patience, and persistence – let’s give the human spirit a chance.
For a more in-depth study of psychological safety in the workplace, I recommend Amy Edmondson’s book: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.