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Seven Ways Managers Can Break Psychological Safety

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Everyone’s talking about psychological safety. Sure, psychologically safe organizations are proving to be more resilient, more innovative and more likely to retain talented employees. Why be like everybody else? What if you want to buck all the ‘psychological correctness’ and create a real shark-eat-shark climate for your team? If you’re ready to shove your team into the deep end where only the strong survive (and the weak go to work for your competitor), you’re in luck. These seven easy tips will help you unleash a true Glengarry Glen Ross dystopia faster than you can say “shut up and do your job.”

Manager Hacks to Destroy Psychological Safety

Squash Contrary Opinions

You want to know what sucks up time? Differences of opinion. If you want to keep the specter of psychological safety out of your beige-tastic office space, you’ll need to set the stage for 100% agreement all the time. As a side effect, this feels great because everybody will be agreeing with you. You don’t need to be a jerk about it. Why not create a culture of toxic niceness, where anybody who offers a point of dissent is met with cold silence and told they need to say ‘yes, and’ because you did an improv workshop in 2014.
Whatever you do, don’t: Foster a sense of candor over niceness


Ask for ideas, then ignore them

Brainstorming is fun! Collecting all those sticky-notes and turning them into action items is boring. If you want to filter the stink of psychological safety from your world, then never follow up on ideas. Solicit them, nod happily when you get them, act excited, then let them languish like the sketchy muskmelon your neighbor forced on you when they went on vacation. Also, be very cautious: Sometimes ideas are just feedback cleverly disguised as something more for you to add to your plate. If you wanted feedback, you would ask for it (which you won’t because that would create a more psychologically safe environment.) Whatever you do, don’t:  Create different channels for ideas and feedback from your team. 


Punish mistakes

Uh oh, somebody on your team left a misspelling in that all-company e-mail! This is a red alert. This is as damaging as if they had shared confidential information with your top competitor. Are you feeling the rage? OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but if you treat every mistake like the worst thing in the world, you are ensuring that nobody will feel psychologically safe. When nobody takes risks, you never have to look bad. The downside is that your team may be spending vast quantities of energy hiding mistakes from you, but out of sight out of mind, right? Besides, you’ll need that extra time and energy triple-checking all of their work. Whatever you do, don’t: Ask your team “What did you learn from that mistake?”


Create an atmosphere where people need to compete for your attention

Did you grow up as your parents’ favorite? It’s awesome. They might say that they love all their kids equally, but everybody knows that’s not true. We all want to be the favorite. A fast way to put your team on edge is to make them compete for your attention. Set up your meetings so that the loudest voices win. Reward interruptions. Give great projects to the people you naturally have the most in common with. When people have to battle for air-time, there’s an electrifying energy to every meeting in a fun Thunderdome way. Best of all, if you’re also squashing dissent, you’ll be operating in a fantastic echo chamber where everybody is stepping over each other to agree with your decisions, even the terrible ones. Whatever you do, don’t: Set norms for communicating that give everybody a voice and a way to raise their voice (without raising their voice)


Keep a good poker face

You know who likes vulnerability? 1990’s RomCom fans and Brené Brown. For the rest of us, leaving our vulnerability at home is a wise idea. Sharing your feelings and missteps honestly and authentically creates a space for psychological safety, and that’s the last thing you want right now. Save that jazz for your ‘Shame Journal’ that you burn at the end of each quarter. Don’t bring your whole self to work. Instead, just bring the part of yourself that could be replicated by AI, the slightly positive yet utterly neutral version of you, like a nonspeaking background character in a video game. If you feel yourself about to “model authenticity,” then pause and instead, unleash a jargony nonsense phrase like “We need to double down and doubleclick on the wins from Q1 and get our ducks in a row for a win-win by leveling up the way we think outside the box to do a deep dive on low-hanging fruit.”  If you share about your mistakes and what you’ve learned, you’ll invite others to do the same, and all that sharing will take time away from what’s really important: spending time obsessing over the clipart your team chose for your quarterly report. Whatever you do, don’t: share honestly about your learning journey and mistakes.


Delegate, then micromanage

As you rise in your level of responsibility, you’ll need to learn to delegate things to other people. Turning over control is scary, even if it does show that you trust your team. Trusting your team is probably going to lead to lots of psychological safety mucking up your pulse scores. There’s only one of you, so you’ll probably need to hand off some things, but that doesn’t mean you need to trust people to do them right. Who has time to micromanage everything? Instead, try ‘selective micromanagement.’ That’s where you’re hands-off sometimes, just until it creates a false sense of ownership. Then, randomly, and savagely, swoop in to direct every small detail of some pet project. Second guess your team’s decisions. Send them endless notes.  Edit their work last-minute. Make sure they know you’re never quite satisfied. (Remember: Poker face.)  The great news about psychological safety is that breaking it sometimes breaks it all the time! Whatever you do, don’t: Let go of the small stuff so that others can learn.  


Don’t consult your team on decisions

Remember when weather systems were thought to be punishment from the gods? And then meteorologists came and explained everything with “science” and stripped the magic out of thunderstorms? Decisions are like weather systems: They’re much more exciting (and terrifying) when we don’t know when they’re coming, why they’re coming, or how they’ll play out. If you involve your team in your decision-making process, you’re inviting lots of opinions and subject matter expertise and if there’s one thing we know about the people who know what they’re talking about it’s this: they are going to slow you down. Don’t solicit perspectives on your way to a decision. Instead, make up your mind based on your best hunch, announce it with confidence (which means eye contact and volume) and don’t open it up for debate.  When people understand where decisions come from and feel like their perspective has been considered, they’ll make better decisions for themselves, and that will steal the spotlight from you, the source of all great decisions. And lightning. Whatever you do, don’t: Be transparent about your decision-making process and gather input along the way so that others have a sense of ownership and control.

There you have it. If you’re committed to sustaining a level of fear and anxiety that limits innovation and collaboration, you have all the tools you need.

If you’re ready to evolve beyond the sharknado and create a more psychologically safe environment, we can help. Check out our learning programs for managers to learn more.

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