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Do You Have Personal, Portable, Psychological Safety?

The 3 small actions that can help you thrive at work.

Source: iStock/enviromantic

With more than two-thirds of workers reporting that they feel burnt out due to the psychological hazards they’re experiencing at work, governments and organizations are scrambling to minimize these risks. But while much can be done – and should be done – by workplaces and leaders to keep their people safe, researchers have found that there are simple but powerful actions each of us can also take to avoid burning ourselves out.

“What feels psychologically safe for each of us at work can vary greatly between us,” explained Paige Williams, my co-founder at The Leaders Lab. “For example, while no one is likely to feel safe with someone yelling and swearing at us, you may feel comfortable passionately debating most issues as we work together, whereas I may feel very stressed when someone is often argumentative.”

This is because who we are (i.e., our age, gender, ethnicity, etc.), our experiences of the world, and our perceptions of power shape what feels safe for each of us in different contexts. So, how can we navigate the subjective nature of what feels safe for each of us at work?

Researcher Cy Wakeman has found that when we have “personal portable psychological safety” it frees us to be less dependent on the behavior of others and the environment that we’re in. It gives us the confidence to acknowledge that we are each perfectly imperfect human beings who don’t have everything figured out, who aren’t getting it right all of the time, and who need each other’s help and support as we learn and grow, and the confidence to accept that there is no shame in this reality as we move between different people and situations at work.

Closely aligned with Kristen Neff’s research on self-compassion, personal portable psychological safety depends on us having the knowledge, tools, and support to practice:

  • Relinquishing self-judgment. When we fall short of other people’s expectations, we brush up against our limitations or suffer setbacks and disappointments. It can be easy to berate ourselves and beat ourselves up about what losers we are. Instead, we can actively comfort ourselves as we acknowledge that we are not where we want to be yet and encourage ourselves to keep trying.
  • Rejecting isolation. When we feel inadequate, embarrassed, or ashamed, our first instinct is often to hide ourselves away so that others can’t witness our humiliation and unworthiness. Instead, we can remind ourselves that every single one of us is failing some of the time and we choose to be courageous enough to own our mistakes and vulnerable enough to ask for help and support from others when we need it.
  • Resisting over-identification. When things are going wrong, our brains can become so fixated and obsessed by what we fear may be happening that we feel helpless and overwhelmed. Instead, we reach for our openness and curiosity about what is unfolding so that we can take a more balanced perspective that enables us to keep learning and growing.

Studies have found that because these practices help us to feel safer within ourselves and with others, we’re able to make informed choices about when it is safe to persist when we need to ask for help, and when we need to set boundaries. Healthy levels of personal portable psychological safety also help us to see things in a clearer and more balanced way so that we can navigate our experiences of work with more emotional intelligence, compassion, and accountability.

What can you do to help yourself and others to build more personal, portable, psychological safety this week at work?


Want to know how else your leaders and workplace can more effectively and sustainably address psychosocial hazards across your workplace? For a full copy of the research report, please click here.

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