Psychological Safety And Its Value At Work With Neil Pretty – Episode 124

LFL 124 | Psychological Safety


Psychological safety is important especially in the environment that we’re in. Even if the workplace has experienced seismic shifts in terms of what is going on, employees should still feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of the team. To shed some light on this topic, Patrick Veroneau is joined by the Co-founder of Aristotle Performance and Managing Partner for North America for System 2, Neil Pretty. Neil collaborates with leaders to create high-performance learning environments. If you’ve ever wondered what psychological safety is or why it is important within organizations, communities, or homes, for that matter, then this is an episode you’re going to want to stick around for.

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Psychological Safety And Its Value At Work With Neil Pretty

On this show, we’re going to talk about psychological safety. If you’ve ever wondered what it is or why it is important within organizations, communities or homes for that matter, then this is an episode you’re going to want to stick around for. My guest is Neil Pretty and he’s an expert in this area. He’s the Cofounder of Aristotle Performance. He’s also a Managing Partner for North America for System2, which is a global consulting group focused on a more humane organization and the creation of better outcomes. Psychological safety is important especially in the environment that we’re in. There’s so much power from this. I hope you will stick around and gain some great insight into this. Let’s get into it.

Neil, thanks for being on the show. We had an opportunity to talk about a topic that is so important. As we come into 2020 here, the workplace has experienced seismic shifts in terms of what is going on. As it relates to your focus, expertise, and something that I certainly have a great interest in, as it relates to organizations is around this concept of psychological safety. I was hoping we could dig into that and your background in it. How do you think this is changing as we come into this decade or this era of 2020? 

Thanks for having me on, Patrick. I appreciate that. As we come into 2020 and as you asked that question, I can’t help but think of a challenge that was put forth to me several months, which was to write an article on what modern leadership needs that’s different from the past. My response at that time is that it’s no different at all. We went through a period of time of command and control, but what made good leadership 100, 200, 500, 1,000 years ago makes good leadership now. It is the kind of leadership that makes people feel that their whole self is welcome and they have something to contribute. Psychological safety is about, can you bring your whole self into the workplace?

Our leaders create the conditions and our organizations were designed in a way to enable that so that people can show up as their whole selves. What has changed is that the economies that we work in and the way organizations make money is dependent on how well people communicate with each other. Psychological safety is ultimately a thing that seems intangible. We all have that moment where we didn’t speak up or we didn’t say something. An example was shared in a group call with some of the global leaders in this field. A CEO got up and thanked his team for buying this other company. The purchase was good and it was doing well, but they’d never actually bought that company and nobody corrected him because they were worried about the consequences.

It’s even something so simple as that. I’ve worked with an organization where somebody didn’t speak up in a meeting and it costs them millions of dollars because of one error that one person didn’t speak up about. The consequence is go home. Now we’re living in our homes and working from our homes. There is this extra pressure to make things okay at work. This psychological safety piece feels intangible. It’s rooted in our human biology. The chemical responses in our body that happen when somebody says something mean, nasty or makes us otherwise not feel like we’re part of the group.

I would think the whole safety piece of this is really important. You mentioned biological. One of the things that I have found interesting, and this was probably months ago at this point and believe me, I am so into this idea of psychological safety. It makes complete sense to me. From the outside, somebody that doesn’t understand this. It’s equating this with snowflakes like you’ve got to be soft. If you need psychological safety, suck it up. You’re not toughen up. We need cry rooms and all this other stuff. What struck me was a couple of months ago, I was watching a National Geographic show and it was about a motorcycle gang in Florida. One of the higher-ups within this motorcycle gang had flipped or had gone as an informant. 

When they were interviewing him, he said, “I decided I had to leave the organization because what I was finding was this well-organized gang that we were a part of was less tolerance for people having different views. People were being killed because they were questioning what the gang was doing.” He thought at this point, “I didn’t feel safe.” For me, psychological safety hits everybody whether it’s organized crime or if you’re in prison. There is that biological component where we need to feel safe.

There was a quote from a board member to Elon Musk that said, and I’ve shared this with lots of people, “No one comes up with a good idea while they’re being chased by a tiger.” I take it one step down and say that we also know that being part of a group is inherently better than being alone because alone, we’re more likely to be chased by a tiger. We will sell our dignity and our ideas, we will let go of all of those things to be part of a group because there is such a deep-seated need to be part of a group. Organizations work more and more in teams. That’s our group. Performance in an organization happens at the team level. We’ll notice that you go from one team to another team. Once high-performing and everybody’s fully engaged and switched on, then you go to another team and it’s a completely different dynamic. We will always be tacking upwind against human nature as leaders and as organizations, but this is one of the most foundational things of the human experience. It’s a desire to be part of the group. Does anybody remember high school? It starts young and it’s part of our human experience to want to be part of that group.

We’re looking at coming out of 2020 at this point. Let’s use March 2020 as our start point. How have you seen the shift from a more remote workforce as being impacted by psychological safety? What does that mean in this environment that we’re in? 

The economies that we work in and the way organizations make money is dependent on how well people communicate with each other. Click To Tweet

The thing that I have noticed the most is groups having almost inexplicable explosions or breakdowns. Somebody shows up at a meeting, they say something and the whole thing falls apart. Everybody is at each other and whatnot. When you dig down to what’s going on, it’s that person was having a moment in their lives because they have seen too much news that day. It got to them that day or something happened at home and it got to them. They weren’t given the grace by the team to allow them to have their moment because we’re all imperfect. I’ve found that those moments are more frequent because people have been inundated with things that caused them to feel fear. I almost think of it as your cortisol is already up at 70%. It doesn’t take much for it to push over that threshold of now you need to have a fear response with your team. That’s what I’ve noticed as more of these random events have shown up, and the team not knowing how to handle it because they are also amped-up already.

When you say that, I immediately think of these disagreements that may have happened in the workplace. Even those disagreements are in my house now. I can’t even separate that anymore in terms of a disagreement with the group of colleagues at work. That now might be in my living room at this point because I’m working remotely. 

I had this thought several months ago that maybe people choose their life partners as the people that they can recover from work with the best. You’ve been most of your life at work and it’s like, “Why not choose the person that helps you recover from that the best?” Now you’re in it with your partner. I’m at home all the time and my wife is downstairs. We have to create boundaries and read social contract with each other. What’s okay? What’s not okay? When is it okay to make noise? When is it not okay to make noise? All of these kinds of things. That’s a lot of extra stuff to juggle. For leaders who are already underdeveloped and underprepared by their organizations have another bag put in their lap. It’s a lot of extra stuff for people to navigate when it was already tough to navigate.

There seems to be a misalignment between leaders’ expectations and behaviors, and the new realities of those that they need to follow them based on this environment. That’s what I hear you saying as well. 

When you say that, I think of the misalignment between organizations setting the stage for their leaders, and leaders setting the stage for their people. A specific example is someone I know who was asked to do an OKR session and develop OKRs with his team. Ultimately, he was told, “This is the KPI. Go figure out how you’re going to do the KPI, not create an OKR.”

For those that might not know, what is OKR? 

Organizational Key Results.

The KPI is? 

It’s the Key Performance Indicator. When he walks into this room and everybody goes, “Why are we here?” He’s like, “Because the boss told us to be here.” It’s not because there’s value around creating OKR. He was not given any kind of guidance for how to facilitate a meeting. What were the guidelines around what was expected was different from the espoused values, live values, and all these different competing factors. Ultimately, it was met with significant levels of apathy because everyone realized that this is another way to measure us, and not another way to engage us or bring us onto the team or improve our lives. He was left holding back without any help from above.

This brings me to another thought. We look at engagement numbers for the last two decades, which have been right around a third of employees within an organization are engaged. What does that look like now? 

LFL 124 | Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety: Psychological safety is about bringing your whole self into the workplace.


It has to be significantly lower. I hear in conversations with people how apathetic they are because as long as they do what they’re told, they feel like they’ll keep their job. Organizations don’t thrive but having individuals who are there to just do their job so they have a job. Organizations thrive on people that care about what they’re up to. Amy Edmondson’s work has a 2×2 where one access is psychological safety and the other is performance accountability. With low-performance accountability and low psychological safety, there is apathy. As performance accountability increases, people become more anxious. With less performance accountability and more psychological safety, there is comfort. If you have both performance accountability and psychological safety, that’s when people are in the learning zone. You can create whole organizational structures that increase and enable a learning zone, which is where you have the highest performance. What organizations and what people tend to do is they’re apathetic. They realize they’ve got to pick with the pace, so there’s performance accountability that’s attached to them.

People are on performance improvement plans and all these things, and then their anxiety goes up. Because people can’t live in anxiety all the time, they try to go back to comfort. If it doesn’t work, they go back to apathy. They end up in this cycle of apathy, anxiety and comfort. They’re swimming around in this without accessing greater levels of psychological safety. They break through that wall and develop into a sense of belonging, a sense of wholeness with their team, and they don’t feel engaged. When people don’t feel engaged at work, they don’t feel like they have meaning. People don’t learn from that. They don’t contribute from that. They are not giving what they have available to give to the organization.

The environment that we’re in now, I’ve seen quite a bit of it and had conversations around this, people are feeling very scared about the security of their jobs. If I don’t have job security, if there isn’t psychological safety, I’m not one that can have that conversation. I’m concerned about my job because it’s almost like the fight, flight or freeze. I’m in the freeze place where I’m like, “Maybe if I don’t say anything, they won’t notice and I won’t raise a red flag like a question that they’re not thinking of themselves.” I had this conversation with a rep in the pharmaceutical industry because that’s an industry that now their reps aren’t getting into hospitals or medical offices. You have thousands of reps across the US that are at home and had been at home since March 2020 wondering like, “How long can we do this?” Zoom calls aren’t that effective in that environment. How long is this going to go on? There’s not a lot of conversation around that. There’s a lot of stress and concern about job security.

I think that fight, flight or freeze response is that psychological safety response. You have this primed pump with all the stress so you dare not make a mistake. What’s ironic about that is this is the perfect time for organizations to be making mistakes. They have a great excuse to be making mistakes, learning and developing what works and what doesn’t work. A lot of people say the same thing, “Zoom doesn’t work for this.” It doesn’t work the same. Once you’re in that place where you’re worried about job security, anything that you can do to say, “This is why it doesn’t work,” is almost another way to protect yourself against trying something new and failing. Saying it doesn’t work protects you better than failure and allowed you more than failures.

I’m going to see if we can get on track here. We know that from Gallup research it says that 70% of my ability to stay with a company is not directly related to the person that I report to or that manager. First, we have to have a manager that agrees that psychological safety is important. If that manager is reading this, what are some of the things that the manager can do to promote an environment of psychological safety? 

Number one is listening and practicing good listening. Developing coach-like skills. Being able to ask good questions and be present with the people that you’re with, and be with them for however they’re showing up. People are showing up sometimes charged and get easily triggered because of everything else that’s going on in the world. Being okay with that and accepting that that’s part of the reality that you’re going to have to manage as a leader. Holding space for inquiry, questions, and getting people to talk. One of the most clear indicators of a high functioning team versus a low functioning team is the difference between what we call a hub and spoke style conversation or a zigzag style conversation. Being able to not have a conversation where the leader asks a question and somebody answers, the leader asks another person a question and they answer, that goes around in circle. That’s a hub and spoke style conversation. You cannot have that conversation.

You need to have that conversation where members are asking each other questions. There’s general inquiry around what’s going on and how things could be different or better. One of the questions I often ask my team is, is the idea that I brought forth to everyone not any good at all? Part of that is the goal of being humble and inviting dissenting opinions into the room, and setting the stage for people to question me. That’s a critical thing for leaders to do. Amy Edmondson’s work has a leadership tool kit in it of set the stage by participation and respond productively. The part where that breaks down the most often is in responding productively. Do you give someone a side-eye? Do you make it hard for people?

To share a story about that regarding Zoom, I worked with a CEO who was pretty good at getting mad at people. He would get mad through Zoom. Every single person on the Zoom screen thought he was mad at them, so the whole team suffered his wrath equally. What was going on was that he was getting upset with the individual and not giving them any way to make it better. This is one of the other suggestions which is to be specific about feedback so that it’s actionable and it’s not targeted at the individual. When you praise people, praise the individual for who they are, how they show up, and what they bring to the table.

From a manager standpoint, when I hear you talking about that, I immediately go to the need for that person to go first. As a leader, I need to show vulnerability to be able to get this group to feel as though they can do it too. If I’m not going to put myself out there, the group is going to hold back and say, “I’m not going there. I’m not saying this.” 

Curiosity is the foundational root of learning. Click To Tweet

You’re bang on. Leaders have to go first and the challenge for leaders is that they’re often scared. One of our colleagues did a study that revealed that one of the most impactful things for the people in her study for the leaders was the fear of being labeled a micromanager. Their fears of how they were going to be labeled by their team changed how they wanted to behave in a way that was destructive to the team. You asked about my experience with psychological safety. My experience is rooted in experiencing human conditions. What it’s like to be thrown into different environments? How are people going to respond? It started with my first leadership position at thirteen years old where I sat down with my Army cadet section. We all sat in a circle and I said, “How do we want to be as a section?” I was promptly stood up, taken outside, stood at attention and screamed at because that’s not how things are done in the Army. Leaders often suffer that. It might not be visceral or obvious but leaders suffer that. That impacts teams and it takes a big level of comfort with yourself as a leader to be able to push through that.

I find it fascinating that you say that. You were thirteen and you’re being hauled out because that’s not the way it’s done. I immediately go back to three different high-ranking military officers, one in the Navy and two in the Army, that I’ve had on the show. All three of them spoke to the fact that they had legitimate authority. They had the title to be able to tell somebody what to do, but that was what they used last because they knew that it wasn’t going to get real buy-in from people. You’ll do it because I said so but it won’t look the same as if you want to do it. If I can get you to want to do this, it’s going to elevate all of us. It’s going to look completely different. They had that competence in themselves to know I shouldn’t have to tell you what to do. If I ask you involvement type of questions, approaches and behaviors, we’re going to end up in a better place. 

What’s interesting is you keyed onto the next level, and these military officers know it at a subterranean level within themselves as well. In that same study that I referred to where managers were afraid of being labeled a micromanager, the issue was that because of that, they didn’t establish authority. Because they didn’t establish authority, they had to use their power from title to manage the team.

It’s like this paradigm shift.

It’s completely different, and authority is such a different thing to wield in power. If you were to take away all titles, the natural leaders would rise to the top and some toxic ones but that’s a whole other conversation and a pretty small portion of the population. Most people are “toxic” simply because they’re not skilled or feel able to establish authority.

If we shift things down and look from an employee standpoint, who wouldn’t want to try and create an environment about more psychological safety unless you’re somebody that’s part of a team that’s a bully, or somebody that wants to keep that sense of control over the group. How do you recommend as an individual trying to have this level of psychological safety promoted as part of your team? That’s going to be much more difficult. 

It is in a lot of ways much more difficult. People talk about everyday leadership like, “We are all leaders.” Not everybody is a natural leader, but there are things you can do that can make your team feel more stable, secure and able. As leaders, we have the biggest impact on that, what’s okay to say, what’s not okay to say, and having members established boundaries like, “That wasn’t cool.” It is a good way to approach and establishing healthy boundaries between people and what’s okay on the team. It’s being in a relationship with each other.

I worked with a team where the people had worked together for six years, and one gentleman did not know that the other guy’s daughter had autism, for example. He had no idea after working six years together that his colleague had a home life that was quite challenging. He had to learn all these different things from the daughter that had this. It was an interesting dynamic as a result because they didn’t know each other. They simply didn’t know each other so they couldn’t have honest conversations. They couldn’t be vulnerable with each other, so there was a breakdown between members.

Getting to know people, especially over Zoom, having that water cooler time. I often suggest that team members set up slack time with each other where they go for a walk together on the phone because they’re not on that video call where they have to use extra calories to read what’s going on over the Zoom screen. Walking the same direction, people tend to solve problems that way. Getting in a relationship with each other is something that can build that comradery regardless of what the leader is up to. Leaders often will follow soon and be like, “This team is different.” They can be nudged in the right direction that way.

We’re like icebergs. We see about 10% of each other and the other 90% of who we are sits below the water. I will jokingly say that the only way you find out what else this person is about is you have to stick your head in the water. That oftentimes takes work and it can be painful to do that. I do believe that when we have a better understanding of who we are like in this situation, what if this is somebody that maybe leaves early on certain dates. You didn’t know why and now you find out that it’s because of physical therapy or some type of event that they have to go to for one of their kids. It changes how you view that person because it’s not as though this person is a slacker. This person has other obligations that need to be taken into account. It’s so important. 

LFL 124 | Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety: Not everybody is a natural leader, but there are things you can do that can make your team feel more stable, secure and able.


As you say that, I can’t help but think that those people are usually the ones that are the most committed to their job. Here is this other team members often going, “What a slacker.” Studies show that those people that have those obligations often do the most work because they’re trying to make up for that time. They take it home with themselves and stuff like that. You have this breakdown in a relationship but not a breakdown in performance.

Often, we fall back to our unconscious biases when that happens. I just make a value judgment on you because it’s the easiest thing for me to do as opposed to taking the time to understand what is going on. That becomes more difficult in this environment if we’re working remotely. We’re starting to see the real value of the water cooler conversations and what that provided around belongingness and connection. 

A mentor of mine, Darren Jacklin, said to me once, “You can say anything to people in the relationship because you have the relationship to make mistakes.” That stands true. Time and time again, we talk about psychological safety. The examples are all these massive issues like Wells Fargo, Volvo and Boeing. They’re catastrophic but it’s often the sarcastic comment that’s catastrophic for us personally that has the most impact. A team I worked with had a sarcastic comment that was made between two members. The one guy took it personally and they didn’t talk to each other for six months.

We have worked with teams where members didn’t talk to each other for five years, and they had to talk through intermediaries. Those are the moments that affect organizational outcomes and people, and that sarcastic comment was made. On the other side, there was an individual who didn’t give him any grace, didn’t give him any leeway. You mentioned icebergs, and we talked about KPIs and OKRs. That will get you down to the surface level of the water when it comes to performance, but there is an iceberg of opportunity below the surface that psychological safety helps access. That’s that collective knowledge that’s accessed through that portal that changes how organizations function and how they go home. Even down to the point where a lot of people go home for medical reasons, and call in sick and they stopped doing that.

You mentioned a verbal example. Somebody says something sarcastic. I think about the nonverbal so if somebody’s in a meeting rolling their eyes when somebody else says something. Even if that person doesn’t see it. It still signals to the rest of the group that this is not a safe place to go against the grain, or to think outside of the norms here, or to throw up new ideas because this is what happens when you’re not looking. I could be that person that’s getting the eyes rolled. It’s almost like we kill the goose. That’s it and we never know about it. It never comes to the surface. It’s just you know what happened. I’m not coming with an idea anymore. 

You’ve drawn something that this is a moment for leaders. As a leader, you’re in the room and one of your members rolls their eye. What do you do? It’s critical to bring that, “John, you rolled your eyes. What’s that about?” Exploring it with some curiosity instead of anger, frustration or reprimand. You can explore that with curiosity. Curiosity is the foundational root of learning.

It takes a very confident leader to be able to do that without being worried about getting derailed or sucked into a conflict themselves that’s going to end in an unhealthy way. 

I always ask, what is the muscle you’re reflecting? Those managers were scared of being micromanagers. The muscles they were reflecting was their fear, and their fear was reflected in their teams. The managers who reflect the muscle of like, “This is terrifying for me but I know that it’s in service of the team. I’m going to do it anyway. Here I go.” They are showing to their team that it’s okay to push through that wall, and expect the other person on the other side of that question is going to respond like an adult because you’re treating them like one.

As we wrap things up here and we’re talking about psychological safety, if there was one behavior that you think is one that is most valuable here, what would that be? 

I might say sarcasm. Partly because of my journey, but partly because I’ve seen a lot of damage from it on team. Some people don’t get the joke. Some people get the joke and don’t like it. Sarcasm is almost always at the expense of someone else, and saying something that’s sarcastic or even otherwise is somehow at the expense of someone else. Not their idea, not their thoughts or their question but who they are is very destructive. We have a society that sees it as natural to be joking and have fun. It is quite disruptive. Leaders and members of teams will often try to use humor to break the tension, but that sarcasm is often reflected by some insecurity that we see in ourselves. It’s getting people to reflect on why they feel a need to be sarcastic, and also maybe shift a behavior that is commonly destructive for the team.

If the first step seems too big, make the step smaller. Click To Tweet

You answered what I thought or I’ll ask, what is the most damaging thing to psychological safety? I would be curious, what do you think is the skill or behavior that is probably most important for developing psychological safety? 

When it comes to developing psychological safety, it might sound a bit weird, but getting teams to do the check-in, bringing your whole self. The act of inviting people to do a check-in. The check-in isn’t just like, “I’m Neil. I checked-in.” It’s like, “This is what’s going on for me.” Those teams that have individuals who show up at some points in time, and they’ve had too many cups of coffee, and they’re wired. They’ve watched or read too many news articles, or they spend on Instagram all morning and they’re flustered, or they got an email from someone outside or inside the organization that’s set them on a different path in their day.

If you can take two breaths for each person in the meeting to say, “I’m Neil. I have too many cups of coffee. I’m a little wired. My kid was running around. My energy is anxious and stressed out.” If I’ve brought myself into the room that way, people know a little bit more about me. They know a little bit more about how I’m showing up. They can have the opportunity to reflect on that. If I say something that’s a little bit cut short or a little bit sharper, he did say he was a little bit wired. It can build some buffer around how we interact with one another, as well as demonstrating that we want to bring our whole selves into work.

When I hear you make that suggestion about checking in, it reminds me of a group that I’m involved with. I’m not a facilitator anymore for them but as a group, we used to have to go around and do a check-in before we met with families that we were helping. It was called the Center for Grieving Children. The whole point of doing the check-in was to release anything that I was dealing with that would prevent me from being present in the moment for the group that I was with. As I hear you say that, there need to be small steps for that to happen where groups feel like I can check-in. The power in that of if I do have things going on, if I can bring that up to the group before we start, maybe it does provide an opportunity for me to be more present and let go of that. Also, the group understands where I’m coming from, and that I might not be 100% here but now at least you know why. That’s great.

What I’m hearing from your response is that not only is it a place to bring up what you don’t want but to bring up energy that you do want. I had a meeting where someone said, “Hold on. The energy here is low and tired. Why don’t we try to access some of the energy we had in this other meeting? What would it be like to do that?” We simply spent one minute each, and five minutes later, how we were all in the meeting was different and the results were amazing.

It’s the small shifts. That’s the important thing here that we talk about. Psychological safety or a lot of this stuff is not about making these major 180-degree changes. They’re tweaks and small things that could be done that will make such a difference as everybody I know looks forward to exiting 2020. What’s 2021 going to look like? Is it going to be more of the same? What are we going to do to change it? We can start doing that now.

I often say to people, “If the first step seems too big, make the step smaller.”

On that note, I want to thank you for taking the time and sharing your expertise in regards to psychological safety and how to bring it to life within organizations because it’s important. If it’s done there, I look at this as we need this everywhere in our personal lives and the communities. When we have psychological safety, we’re richer for it. Thank you. 

Thank you very much, Patrick. I appreciate it.

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About Neil Pretty

My experiences in life, at work and as a leader of hundreds of teams across numerous industries has provided a deep understanding of the human condition and what it takes to produce results. The realization that psychological safety was the most influential factor in effectiveness and results was confirmation of what my experience had taught me.

As a result of that journey the goal is to provide opportunities for people to feel more empowered and enabled at work and in their lives and for business to thrive as a result has become a focus of my daily efforts as well as my entrepreneurial pursuits.

This is the most complex problem facing leaders and organizations today. How do you make the whole greater than the sum of its parts? How do we make human nature work for our organizations instead of against them? How do you tap into the talent that is currently underutilized?

Everything in life is a series of conversations. How well a team interacts has the greatest impact on how well they perform. Psychological Safety is the simplest way to measure, track and improve those interactions.

Simple metrics and simple changes consistently provide access to an iceberg of opportunity and human capital that is hidden below the surface. These initiatives and interventions can take teams and organizations to a whole new level of performance where their people are their competitive advantage.

There is so much missed opportunity, squandered talent, and so many teams that are teetering on the brink of sink-or-swim. I want to connect the dots for people at all levels, and help them showcase their talents while translating them into high performance results.

I spend my time collaborating with other leaders to develop strategies and initiatives that achieve these goals.

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