Imagine if I told you that you should only continue reading this article, if you had a PhD level education (to understand the complex, neuroscientific principles), and you are at least 25 years old (to be mature enough to recognise the change that is required as a result of reading this article). After these suggestions, did it provoke a strong emotional thought and reaction such as outrage, annoyance or rejection….?

….If so, what you have experienced is a threat to your Psychological Safety.

This exercise was cleverly introduced at the start of the excellent Radecki, D and Hull, L (2018) book on Psychological Safety, to explain how being psychologically threatened impacts our ability to think coherently.

Feeling psychologically threatened is a negative emotional experience that disrupts and derails our thinking and emotions. It damages relationships, impacts productivity and damages our physical and emotional health. We encounter small emotional threats every day to various degrees, but mostly we are not conscious or aware of them.

A psychological threat to our safety however, can have a long-lasting, more fundamental impact than a physical threat. In fact, “social rejection has the same impact on the brain as a punch to the face” (Eisenberger, 2012).

When we experience an attack to our psychological safety, our brain is triggered to a stress response, our cognitive abilities are compromised and our logical brain goes into hiding. In this derailed, emotive state, we revert to overuse our strengths, we remove logic, and we can find it difficult to concentrate, make decisions or control our emotions (Lupien, 2012).

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological Safety has been defined by Amy Edmondson, Professor at Harvard as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe to make interpersonal risks” (2019).

In a Psychologically Safe environment the team speak up, they share ideas, they ask questions, challenge each other, raise objections and ideas are respected and included. This is the basis for innovation, inclusion, creativity and growth.

What is the relationship between stress and psychological safety?

Our brains are wired to be aware of safety risks, our brain networks react faster, stronger and for longer periods than our reward networks. This is driven by the amygdala, and is responsible for fight or flight response. The amygdala is extremely efficient and attentive. It continues to operate without us knowing and is constantly looking for patterns or risks.

This results in a ‘negativity bias’ where we unconsciously look out for threat and danger more than anything else, resulting in us attributing danger and risk to relatively harmless situations like an abrupt email, a challenging deadline, a flippant comment, or a critical remark. Unfortunately, our brain does not know the difference and treats every day micro-threats in the same way as a large, life threatening one.

Our brains are on “autopilot” we deal with 11 million pieces of information per second and 99% of this is automatic, below consciousness (Wilson, 2002) we therefore process risks without thought or awareness, which makes some risks difficult to rationalise.

What is the impact of negativity bias?

Our pre-frontal cortex, helps to control and mitigate the biases. The pre-frontal cortex helps to manage the automated response from the amygdala, and rationalise the extent of the risk and puts a stop to the emotional response. The pre-frontal cortex is fully developed when we reach our 20’s, and is regarded to be a new part of the brain, it is therefore less well developed, slower and not as efficient as the amygdala, it requires more energy and focus.

Stress is the enemy, prolonged stress can cause the pre-frontal cortex to physically shrink and weaken (Arnsten, 2012) and at the same time the amygdala can strengthen as a result of stress.

How do we become more resilient?

Much like many aspects of psychology the solution is common sense. In order to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex and stop the impact of stress we need to look after ourselves. According to Radecki and Hull (2018) we need to focus on our health, nutrition, exercise and sleep. We also need to make sure that we work in a team or environment that has fewer psychological threats or risks that will be picked up by the amygdala. To do this we need to each take responsibility and lead the way in creating psychologically safe environments and teams, where people can speak up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and feel safe to make interpersonal risks.

What are you doing to support your teams to feel safe and be resilient?

At Zircon BeTalent, we recognise the importance of resilience and psychological safety. Based on comprehensive research, we have designed tools that can help you develop an environment of psychological safety and resilience. For further information about how we can help you with assessing the levels of Psychological Safety and resilience in your team, please contact us. Thank you for reading.