Why You Can’t Create Psychological Safety Without Understanding Personality DifferencesShare via
Without understanding individual differences in how people experience the world around them, it’s impossible to create an environment that is psychologically safe for them.
What is Psychological Safety?
Dr. Amy Edmonson is the pioneer of psychological safety. Here’s her definition:
A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
Personality is one of the most powerful influencers of what it takes for people to feel comfortable and safe. That’s because personality determines how a person takes in and experiences the world around them, their unique perspective on things, and how they prefer to communicate their view to their teammates.
To help appreciate the power of personality differences to influence a person’s experience of psychological safety, let’s take a look at just one dimension of personality; perceptual frame of reference. The Process Communication Model® (PCM), a language-behavior-based model of individual differences and communication, identifies six unique perceptual frames of reference.
Perceptual Frame of Reference and Psychological Safety
Perception is like the filter through which a person takes in and experiences their world. To fully appreciate another person’s lived experience, we have to understand perceptions. Perceptions are evident in how a person speaks, the types of questions they ask, and how they prefer to communicate with others. Recognizing and welcoming a person’s perception is fundamental to creating psychological safety. Without that, we inadvertently send the message, “Your perspective and way of seeing things isn’t valued.” It’s scary to put our real selves out there. How can teams create psychological safety if a member of that team doesn’t believe their perception is seen, welcomed, heard, and included?
Psychological safety, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The Six PCM Perceptions
About 30% of the population (75% female) experiences the world through their Emotions. They sense with their heart and gut, having emotional responses to the world around them. They might experience an inconsistency or potential problem by having a feeling. They might not be able to explain it logically, but their gut knows something isn’t right.
How to create psychological safety: Inviting them to share their feelings without having to defend, explain, or justify. Show appreciation for their compassion.
About 25% of the population (75% male), experiences the world through their Thoughts. They take in and process information logically, looking for patterns. They seek rational explanations. They get concerned when things don’t add up logically, or they can predict a negative outcome.
How to create psychological safety: Listen to their logic, and get curious to understand the thinking behind it. Show appreciation for their logical thinking.
About 20% of the population (60% female), experiences the world through their Reactions. They react to what comes at them, like a reflex. They instinctively know what they like or don’t like, and wear their heart on their sleeve. If something doesn’t seem right, their face and body will show it even before they’ve thought it through.
How to create psychological safety: Don’t judge their immediate reactions, avoid jumping to conclusions about their intentions, and don’t force them to explain their response. Show appreciation for their spontaneous candor.
About 10% of the population (75% male), experiences the world through their Opinions. They evaluate what comes at them, discerning how it compares to their values. They get concerned when things stray from the standards, and are hyper-alert for inconsistencies. They usually aren’t afraid to share their opinions.
How to create psychological safety: Listen to their opinions, even if you don’t agree. Show appreciation for their dedication to their values.
About 10% of the population (60% female) experiences the world through their Inactions, meaning “action is on the inside.” They reflect first, absorbing and imagining the possibilities, allowing things to roll around in their brains. They generally don’t have immediate responses, and need time to see what percolates.
How to create psychological safety: Don’t pressure them to give feedback or weigh in. Respect their need for space and time to process. Appreciate their imagination and out-of-the-box thinking.
About 5% of the population (60% male) experiences the world through their Actions, jumping into action right away. When they see something that’s out of line and needs to change, they go for it. They usually don’t think twice about speaking up or taking action.
How to create psychological safety: Invite them to lay out what they see as the immediate action steps. Take advantage of their sense of urgency. Appreciate their initiative.
Which one of these six perceptions is your favorite? What do you need from your team to feel psychologically safe?
Projecting Perceptions and Unconscious Bias
When it comes to psychological safety, practicing the Golden Rule can be a liability. If “treat others as you’d want to be treated,” means creating a safe space for your favorite perception, you might be inadvertently creating an unsafe space for the other five perceptions.
Recently I attended a conference focused on compassion. We started each day with an affirmation of psychological safety that went something like this; “We appreciate that we might get emotional from time to time, and we promise to create a safe space for people to share their emotions without fear of negative consequences.” My strongest perceptions are Thoughts and Actions. While I appreciated the attention to psychological safety and was fully on board with welcoming feelings into the room, this particular group commitment didn’t help me feel any safer.
Consider these questions:
- Which perception is most prevalent in your team? How might that impact people with different perceptions?
- Which perception is most difficult for you to understand and appreciate? What prejudices do you have about these kinds of people?
- How are mistakes handled? Is there a safe space to process mistakes from all six perceptional frames of reference?
- What could be different if you viewed challenges from different perceptual frames of reference?
The highest functioning teams recognize that psychological safety is about understanding the lived experience of each person and adapting our communication to meet them where they are. That way we not only welcome their perception, but we invite their unique, best selves into the mix.
Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2023
If you’d like to learn more about how PCM can transform the way you approach inclusion, leadership, and teamwork, contact us today. We will help design a program that’s just right for you. We can even train and certify your internal L&D team to bring PCM to your organization.
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