When discussing psychological safety, we like to use the SAFETY1 model from the Academy of Brain-based Leadership. Note that we’re not affiliated with this organization - we just find their model very useful when discussing the topic.
The model describes five main groupings plus one catch-all to identify the factors that are unique to each person. These grouping are: Security, Autonomy, Fairness, Esteem, Trust, and You. To feel psychologically safe, each of us must have all of these, although we vary in the degree to which we need them. One person might have a high need for Security and a lower need for Esteem while another might have a high need for Trust and a lower need for Autonomy.
“You can see variations among people in how the nervous system prioritizes safety and risk factors. If you are part of a group that enters a novel environment, some people reflexively become hyper-vigilant and stop participating in the group discussions, while others keep socially talking to each other until someone comes up behind them and something dangerous happens.”2
If we wish to address psychological safety in a group setting, we will need to address all of these areas. There is no one single thing that we can do to improve it.
Security is the brain’s need for predictability.1 We have evolved to be amazing prediction engines. For us to have survived this long from an evolutionary perspective, it was not enough to be able to react well to danger around us, we must be able to predict where dangers might be.
On predictability: “Creatures that predicted correctly most of the time, or made nonfatal mistakes and learned from them, did well. Those that frequently predicted poorly, missed threats, or false-alarmed about threats that never materialized didn’t do so well. They explored their environment less, foraged less, and were less likely to reproduce.”3
The SAFETY model identifies four components to security. Each of these contributes to our ability, or inability, to successfully predict what’s going to happen in our environment. The more we can successful predict, the safer we feel.
- no Change
Counter-intuitively we also crave some novelty, albeit in small doses. How much we can tolerate depends on our current level of stress1
How we phrase our words to others can impact the level of security they feel. We’ve all had that moment where we hear “can you come into my office” and we immediately begin to anticipate all the things we might have done wrong.
“As soon as we ask a client to change, the client often interprets this to mean that they did something wrong. Once this “critical” feedback is processed by the nervous system, the nervous system might switch into a state of defense, which will make it more difficult for the client to understand and maintain a calm state.”2
While we may appear to accept direction, we really don’t like being told what to do.
Although our conscious response may appear to accept directions, at a nonconscious level our threat response can be triggered, and we resist. That resistance may be so strong that it sabotages our conscious efforts to listen and comply, particularly when directions are imposed upon us rather than chosen or invited. Our amygdala can perceive this intrusion as a threat and shut down our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), impacting our ability to process instructions.1
We can probably all think of people who do appear to want to be told what to do and this can be counter-intuitive. The reality is that those people who want to be told exactly what to do are lacking security and are seeking that first. Once they feel that they can successfully predict what’s coming, they want autonomy.
While we’re talking specifically about psychological safety here, be aware that lack of autonomy has other implications. Autonomy is a key element of motivation4 and lack of autonomy has been linked to depression, anxiety and stress1
Perceiving things that are unfair will inhibit the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and psychological safety is defined as the state where we have access to that PFC.
When we perceive something as unfair, the anterior insula is activated5. This in turn suppresses the prefrontal cortex1. Recall that the definition of psychological safety is a state where we have access to the prefrontal cortex so unfairness immediately makes us unsafe.
“Productivity takes a hit when people perceive unfairness, because there is decreased activation of the reward centres in the brain and the emotional parts of the brain are disrupted along with the cognitive areas!”6
Interestingly, the unfair situation does not even have to be directed at us. If I perceive an unfair situation, I will feel less safe, even if I am not personally impacted by that unfairness.
Conversely, fairness has a positive benefit. When we see something that is fair, we get a hit of the reward chemical dopamine that encourages us to seek out and value more fairness.
Esteem is all about how we feel about ourselves and others and where we fall in social status. From an evolutionary perspective, those who were kicked out of the tribe tended to die and so we are wired to value our connection to others.
So much so that disapproving facial expressions from others can trigger the amygdala more than fear7. One study showed that social rejection, by way of public insult or a challenge to our esteem, has the same impact on the brain as physical pain8.
This includes how we think about ourselves as well as how others see us.
We automatically distrust those who are different. When our prefrontal cortex is working well, it can override this automatic reaction but of course, when we aren’t feeling psychologically safe, our prefrontal cortex either isn’t working at all or isn’t working well.
“We are social animals who thrive in tribes. Our brains empathize most with those who are similar to us and likable: our in-group. The brain treats strangers as a threat, categorizing them as a “foe,” and processes them as part of our out-group. We are able to override this nonconscious out-group bias towards strangers by engaging our PFC and finding commonalities with them. Stress can severely decrease our ability to override this bias.”1
When we do have trust, we are more likely to feel safe.
“Trust triggers the release of oxytocin in both directions. We get it when we trust others and also get it when we are trusted, even if we don’t trust the person who trusts us”9
We obviously want trust to encourage a psychologically safe environment. If that isn’t reason enough, Steven Covey estimates that significant distrust doubles the cost of doing business and triples the time it takes to get things done10.
The good news is that it’s possible to build trust through exercises. Deliberately finding commonalities between people will start to bridge that gap.
“Finding commonality with the outsider is one of the most effective techniques for managing this in-group vs. out-group dilemma. When we identify commonalities, we actually start to think about the outsider with the part of our brain used to reflect upon ourselves, enabling us to be more trusting. In essence, we switch the area of the brain dealing with the newcomer and move the person to that part of the brain that is recruited for in-group processing”1
We’re all different and that’s both good news and bad. This last grouping identifies all the things that are unique to each of us.
“Aspects that can impact this domain are your personality; your biases, patterns, habits and triggers; your past experiences; your future plans; your current situation; and your current outlook. The impact of this domain can be so strong that it can outweigh any or all of the other five.”1
The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen W. Porges, 2017 ↩ ↩2
Autonomy is one of the basic psychological needs as defined in Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness by Richard M. Ryan & Edward L. Deci, 2018 ↩
Xuemei Cheng, Li Zheng, Lin Li, Yijie Zheng, Xiuyan Guo, Guang Yang, “Anterior insula signals inequalities in a modified Ultimatum Game”, Neuroscience, Volume 348, 201 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2017.02.023. ↩
Burklund, Lisa J.; Eisenberger, Naomi I.; Lieberman, Matthew D. (2007). “The face of rejection: Rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activity to disapproving facial expressions.” Social Neuroscience, 2(3-4), 238–253. doi:10.1080/17470910701391711 ↩
“Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain : Behavioral and Neural Evidence” C. Nathan DeWall, Geoff MacDonald, Gregory D. Webster, Carrie L. Masten, Roy F. Baumeister, Caitlin Powell, David Combs, David R. Schurtz, Tyler F. Stillman, Dianne M. Tice and Naomi I. Eisenberger. Psychological Science 2010 21 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610374741 ↩
Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels by Loretta Graziano Breuning ↩