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How Psychological Safety Impacts Burnout

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A women in a red sweater sits in a wheelchair in front of a wooden table with a latte and an open laptop on it.

How Psychological Safety Impacts Burnout

Over the years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time working with teams. Some who have come a tremendously long way, and some who are just starting out on the path. No doubt, we all live and work in teams of some sort. And, we all have opinions about them!

Here’s a new distinction I want to share with you: psychological safety on teams and its impact on individual burnout.

You may have seen this remarkable study from Google last year, that exposed the results of their two-year long study on high-performing teams. They discovered that what matters most to high-performing teams is psychological safety – a belief that you are safe to speak your mind, make mistakes, and you won’t be punished. In other words, can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

Psychological safety is not the same as trust.

Trust is believing someone has your back, that they’re competent enough to do so, and that their future actions will align with your best interests. Trust is still vital for teams because it lowers the amount of energy you have to spend monitoring your behavior. It’s the ease that comes when you know you’re on the same side, so to speak.

Here’s what’s fascinating about this idea of psychological safety, though:

For teams with low psychological safety, speaking up feels incredibly risky. Often, folks have direct experience getting burned when they do, even if they believe they are doing the right thing. Some are punished or fired for going against the tide, causing a tremendous amount of fear.

Even for those who don’t witness these incidents directly, the stories spread quickly, and soon you’ve got an entire organizational culture of fear, self-protection, and survival.

Working (or living) in an environment of heightened fear activates all kinds of survival responses physiologically. Our fight-or-flight system gets triggered, our brain becomes flooded with stress hormones, and our awareness narrows dramatically. We are no longer able to access much beyond surviving this moment. Our experience, talents, gifts, presence all diminish and can feel very far away.

Prolonged states of fight-or-flight (or chronic power stress) wreak havoc on our bodies, minds, and emotional wellbeing. Enter stage left: leadership burnout.

If you and many of your team members are frighteningly close to burning out (or live in a continued state of high stress), check in with yourself about the environment you’re fostering on the team.

Are individuals safe to speak what’s on their minds without repercussion, or are you inadvertently breeding a culture of fear and stress?

If you’re worried that psychological safety may be at risk for you/your team, try this:

Find an objective, trusted ally who will tell you the truth. Ask them if others are afraid to speak up, share honestly, present bold ideas, even fail around you. Listen with an open mind, even if it’s hard to hear.

If the answer is “yes,” it’s time to self-reflect. Look back on your default behaviors that may send a subtle (or explicit) message that people have to be careful around here. Any recent time of acute pressure or stress? How did you engage with your team then?

Revisit your core values and business strategy. Who are you committed to being as a leader? What kind of team culture does the business depend on for its success?

Last, own it. Open up to your team, be vulnerable about your experience, your values, and your own lack of awareness around psychological safety on the team. Apologize for what they’ve been going through. Ask for forgiveness. Create a shared plan for making the team culture better and live up to your promises.

Leadership burnout is preventable… once we become aware of its source(es). Don’t let yourself, team leader, be one of them.

To your thriving,
Erin

PS. If you are struggling with any of the above and want to chat confidentially, let’s set up a brief call. I’ve seen all stages and levels of health on teams. I don’t judge. I am on your side and believe in transformation. And, I promise I’ll tell you the truth (even when no one else will).

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