A Guest Post By Cassandra Goodman – 

Late last year at the Serenity Collective we published the second version of the Thriving Workplace Manifesto. Based on the input from the Collective, our 2018 Manifesto contained a new key ingredient – Psychological Safety. This brilliant article below was written by one of our Thriving Workplace community members, inspired by the awesome Allan Sparkes who delivered a deeply moving session at 2018 the Thriving Workplace event back in August about finding the courage to care.

Whist the topics of Trust and Psychological Safety may feel scary and complex, Cassandra’s intention in writing this article was to explore the connection between Trust and Psychological safety to help more leaders dig deep and find the courage to care enough to lean into these important concepts and conversations.

By understanding and working with the changing nature of Trust in the workplace we are able to nurture Psychological Safety and create workplaces where people can truly thrive and reach their full potential.


What is Psychological Safety?


Psychological Safety (as defined by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School) is a group culture based on a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and includes a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

The concept of psychological safety is not a new one, however given the disturbing findings of the ongoing Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industries, the extent to which employees feel safe to speak up is certainly a very hot topic.

Many of Australia’s large iconic financial institutions have been accused of (and in some cases admitted to) varying forms of misconduct. A common thread through each of the testimonies, has been a culture of complicity – a culture in which people are expected to turn a blind eye to poor behaviours. The antidote to a culture of complicity is the deliberate creation of a “speak-up culture”, where people feel safe to call out undesirable behaviours.


Psychological Safety is the #1 Driver of Team Performance


In 2012 Google embarked on a study (known as Project Aristotle) to better understand the drivers of team performance. At first the project team was not able to identify clear drivers of performance, however using research on group norms (the traditions, behavioural standards and unwritten rules that govern how a group functions) the team discovered that the group norms of highest performing enabled psychological safety. The key finding of Project Aristotle was that psychological safety was the number one driver of team performance.


Psychological Safety Depends on Trust


Teams with strong levels of psychological safety have a team culture characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect. Have you ever experienced the wonderful feelings of belonging and engagement that comes from being part a team like that?

When we are part of a team where there is strong trust and respect, we feel free to speak up, to challenge, to bring “our whole selves” to work without fear of judgement. We may even experience a way of working that feels like productive play. You cannot create psychological safety without trust.

In addition to the important benefits of trust at an individual level, there is also enormous upside for organisations. Paul Zac explores the significant organisational benefits of trust in the article The Neuroscience of Trust (HBR 2017)

“Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance. Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout”.


So, What Exactly is Trust and How is it Changing?


Within organisations, trust is one of the most precious and most fragile assets. Rachel Botsman defines trust as a “confident relationship to the unknown” and as “a bridge between the known and the unknown – the conduit through which new ideas travel”.

Trust is now at an all-time low for large institutions. In her book “Who Can You Trust” Rachel explores the how many of the ways trust is built, managed, lost and repaired has been fundamentally reconfigured. Today, trust is distributed between people, whereas in the past trust flowed upwards towards perceived power. One of the key reasons why trust in institutions has been destroyed is because of a reducing acceptance of what Rachel calls “inequality of accountability”, meaning that we are becoming less willing to accept that the most powerful people get to play by different rules.


How Might We Make a Difference, as Individual Leaders?


Based on my 20 years of corporate experience it is my belief that there is an enormous amount of work to do (and undo) in order to create organisations that are truly worthy of trust. As leaders, we need to continually demonstrate our trustworthiness to both our employees and our customers. Simon Sinek said “customers will never love a company unless employees love it first”. I believe that this same idea holds true for trust – your customers will never trust your organisation unless your employees trust your leaders.

Many workplaces today are still heavily burdened with antiquated systems, processes, policies and mindsets. The central intent that lingers on in many legacy workplace design elements is not to build trust, but rather to control, to mitigate risk and to maximise efficiency and productivity through elaborate systems of sticks and carrots.

Barry Schwartz explores this idea in his book “Why We Work”:

“We “design” human nature, by designing the institutions in which people live. The conditions of human labour created by the industrial revolution have systematically deprived people of fulfillment from their work. If we want to help design a human nature that seeks and finds challenge, engagement, meaning and satisfaction from work, we have to start building our way out of the deep hole that almost three centuries of misconception about human motivation and human nature have put us in, and help foster workplaces in which challenge, engagement, meaning and satisfaction are possible.”

Given the nature of trust is constantly evolving, it is deeply misguided for leaders to think they can simply “win back trust”. There must be a continual awareness of the changing and distributed nature of trust and a deep commitment to sustainable, long-term behaviors that demonstrates to your employees, your customers and the communities in which you operate that you are worthy of trust.

As leaders we need to learn to adapt to this new landscape. Keeping our heads in the sand is clearly not an effective strategy, nor is becoming more controlling and demanding in a desperate attempt to hold people accountable to your outdated expectations that they should trust and respect you simply because you have the word “chair”, “chief”, “director” or “manager” in your job title.


Where Can You Start?


As leaders, I believe that we can positively and meaningfully contribute to the creation of workplaces that earn and protect trust on four levels:

• Systems-level; work at this level must focus on the redesign of workplaces and work practices to transform all elements of the employee experience through the relentless application of principles of simplification, enablement and human-centred design


• Team-level; work at this level requires role-modelling the right behaviours, radical candor, displaying appreciation, seeing feedback as a gift and having the courage to look for the things that you don’t want to see and the things that you don’t want to hear – and having the tough conversations in an open, respectful, kind and authentic way


• Individual level; work at this level involves supporting the right people to speak-up and realise their full potential whist supporting those with “off track” behaviours to step up or step out. After all, the best way to hire and retain people who are open, collaborative, inclusive and self-aware is to already have a workplace where these type of people make up the vast majority.


• Personal-level: work on this level requires deep personal reflection, self-awareness, a growth mindset, vulnerability and an understanding that organisation transformation only become possible when leaders dig deep to find the courage to care through embarking upon their own personal transformation journeys

Whilst the topic of trust can feel overwhelming, as leaders we all have the opportunity to make a difference. In the great words of Alice Walker “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

As leaders we all have both the opportunity and the responsibility earn and nurture trust and to do step up to the challenge of an expanded “duty of care” to support our people to truly thrive and reach their full potential.


About The Author

Cassandra Goodman is a member of the Serenity Collective Thriving Workplace community. Cassandra is a leader driven by a strong sense of purpose and a deep commitment to a human-centric approach to business. Cassandra’s personal purpose is to create workplaces where people and performance thrive through change and challenge. She believes that when we are at our best, work feels like productive play. Cassandra has held a range of senior executive roles at GE, Origin Energy, Bupa and Australian Unity. She also has a side hustle as a writer, speaker and facilitator on topics relating to employee experience, wellbeing and personal sustainability. Cassandra is also is a mum of two high-energy boys and is currently working on her first book.

About The Thriving Workplace Community

The Thriving Workplace is a radical new movement built on a very simple belief – that behind every thriving business is a group of thriving human beings. If you want your team or organisation to grow and succeed, you’ll need high-energy individuals and a strong culture to connect them all.

Whether you are an individual looking to increase your own vitality and performance at work, or an executive responsible for thousands of employees, we invite you to join our movement and make a positive influence in your own world and beyond!

* Dates just released for our 2019 Annual Event – 26-28 August 2019 at the stunning Q Station, Sydney *

Sign Up To Be Part Of The Collective

Get the latest research findings, what's coming up, and loads of inspiration!

You have Successfully Subscribed!