The absence of psychological safety can show up in different ways.
Acting “professionally” can be a social filter that doesn’t match reality. And if you’re in a toxic work culture, it can be a damaging filter. It can mean not calling out the elephant in the room. It can mean not having difficult conversations.
A few years ago in a meeting, a colleague asked if I could take notes. This is a completely normal ask, but something about this particular ask bothered me. I was sitting in a room full of male peers. I was the only female, and I was singled out to take notes.
This exact scenario has replayed throughout my professional life. In countless rooms.
In past scenarios I would act “professionally”. I ignored the elephant in the room. I avoided difficult conversations. I didn’t ask questions, I just did the ask.
This time, I decided to rock the boat and voice what I was thinking. I looked at him, and with kindness and curiosity I said, “I’m happy to contribute and take notes during this meeting, but before I say yes, can you please tell me why you asked me, the only female in a room of peers?”
You could have heard a pin drop.
The uncomfortable tension that question created was palpable.
But here’s the thing, change only happens if you’re brave enough to rock the boat. Difficult conversations are the very things that enable growth. If you’re brave enough to shed light when an unconscious bias is being used. To create consciousness around it.
Fast forward a few months. My company gave equal pay day off to every female employee.
What is equal pay day?
In the United States, women earn 83% of what men earn for the exact same job. Equal pay day is March 14th. It marks how far into the next year a woman must work to earn what a man did—doing the exact same job—the previous year.
I went into work as normal on equal pay day.
A male counterpart walking by my desk did a double take, then asked why I didn’t take the day off. Me being me, I said that instead of a token day off, I’m holding out for equal pay.
For a second I think he regretted asking. But to his credit, he considered my response, nodded his head in approval, and said “yeah, I totally get that”.
As employees, and especially as leaders, it’s your job to share your voice and help shape the culture. To take accountability for the culture. After all, culture is simply a collection of all the people there. The norms that we establish together. The ways of doing things we accept, or no longer accept.
As a leader, it means fostering psychological safety and demonstrating it’s safe by bravely jumping into it. As a leader, you need to lead the way. To be vulnerable. To rock the boat and call out things that don’t seem right. To encourage honesty and to reward transparency.
It’s time to rock the boat.
Let’s dive into difficult conversations with curiosity, humility, and kindness.