Vicki Haverson

Vicki Haverson

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Psychological safety: Why it's so important for leading through the next phase of the crisis

September 9, 2020

Whether we are aware of it or not, every time we interact with someone we are meeting or withholding some of their needs. Our behaviour either motivates and engages people, or it can cause them to withdraw and shut down.

According to Gallup, leaders account for 70% of the variance in engagement and performance of their people. Every leader needs to understand the psychological status and needs of each individual member of their team, particularly during times of crisis when a person's underlying state might be more extreme, overt, or changeable. And it’s become clear that as the Covid-19 crisis drifts on, this is not just a health crisis but a psychological one too.

One helpful model that summarises the five most common things that our modern-day brain can experience as threats to our safety is the SCARF model developed by mindfulness and brain researcher David Rock.

Our brains are hardwired to consider our Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If we experience a loss of status, certainty or autonomy; if we feel that we haven’t been included or that something is unfair, we see it as a type of threat that we need to be protected from. The thinking part of the brain shuts down and we can lose perspective, judgement and ultimately disengage, which impacts on our performance.

Let's take a look at each of the SCARF areas in more detail:

Status is about our importance relative to others. When we mishandle feedback for example, we can threaten someone's sense of status, which might cause them to become defensive or even angry. If we are managing people more experienced or skilled than us, we might squander or dismiss their ideas or focus on their mistakes, regardless of how minor they might be. Status is improved for a person when they are given regular praise for their performance, and opportunities to grow and develop their talents.

Certainty is about the ability to predict the future. When we feel uncertain about something, our brains try and work overtime to make sense of the unknown, which makes us lose focus and feel threatened. One of the key indicators of employee engagement is when a person can answer 'yes' to the question 'I know what is expected of me at work.' Being clear with people on what is expected from them, and checking in with them on this on a regular basis helps us to feel safe, no matter how uncertain everything else is. 

Autonomy is about how in control we feel of events. Micromanaging is the biggest threat to a persons' autonomy. Whilst every person has different needs when it comes to how much autonomy works for them, nobody is motivated when they feel boxed in. Showing trust by involving individuals in decision making, delegating appropriately, encouraging responsibility and granting the freedom to try out new ideas increases safety.

Relatedness is about how safe we feel with others and how much we belong. When we don’t feel a sense of belonging in the group, we can feel lonely, which impacts on our collaboration, creativity and commitment. Connection with others increases the release of the hormone Oxytocin in the brain, and the more of this we have, the more connected we feel. Building up team bonds with regular get-togethers, one to ones, buddy systems or mentoring can increase relatedness. At a time when we are mostly all working remotely, taking the time to have regular check ins is vitally important. This doesn’t have to be an hour every week, it can be as simple as a 15 minute call.

Fairness is about how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be. If someone perceives something to be unfair, it will activate the insular cortex which is the region of the brain that is linked to disgust - a powerful threat response. The impact of this can be reduced with regular, open and honest communication about what is going on, and the thought process behind making decisions. This is more important during a time of crisis than ever, as without this information people will start to make up their own stories leading to increased feelings of unfairness. Unfairness is more likely to happen when expectations and objectives aren't clear, or when the rules and boundaries aren't clear. Setting up a mutually agreed team charter which clarifies goals and expectations can help with this. 

Almost everyone experiences a lack of safety in one of the SCARF areas to some degree, and being aware of them is the first step, as it can turn you into a hero or a demon in an instance! Remember that we are all different, which means we will have different responses to a situation. What might energise and engage one person, might alienate and cause another to shut down.

Put yourself into the shoes of the other person and consider what they might see as a threat, and what they might be needing from the situation. If you provoke or notice a reaction in someone, explore it with curiosity to find out what they are feeling fearful of - and why - and consider what you might need to change in your approach.

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