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Neuropsychological Safety in the Workplace

Creating an environment in which individuals can express themselves.

Key points

  • Leaders who embody calm, clear-headed leadership may create trusting relationships on their team.
  • Trust in teams is built by creating a culture of authenticity, inclusion of ideas, opinions, and competencies.
  • Create a neuropsychologically safe environment fostering creativity, innovation, and collaboration.

by Barry Downing, Kerrie Alanen, and Justin James Kennedy

To foster a sense of psychological safety in the workplace has never been more crucial. The idea of psychological safety is not new, as a key factor in enabling teams to perform at their best. However, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that psychological safety alone may not be enough to achieve peak team performance.

What is the “neuro” in psychological safety?

It refers to the sense of safety at a neurological level, but it explains that trust and change are neurological events. This is because emotions are experienced neurologically before we become psychologically aware of these feelings. If we hope to create trusting, innovative teams, the work begins with the leader’s awareness of neuropsychological safety in their own brain, before they can encourage and model the same for their employees in the workplace to drive safer, richer, and healthier cultures.

Why neuropsychological safety in the workplace matters

To create an emotionally safe working environment, it's important to help every team member find new behaviors that are different and help build trust, but it must begin with leadership. This will eventually become the new norm in the team if a leader is fiercely aware of how their own behaviors affect others (language, tone, body language, ability to create a truly safe inclusive environment).

When employees see and feel this, they will emulate the modeled mindset and behaviors. This requires a leader’s change of heart, mindset, and behavior. This means every single team member needs to build new behaviors that sustain trust in their team. By building neurological states and pathways in their brains, new behaviors can be learned and new neural connections can be formed.

What enhances neuropsychological safety

As in the previous blog on cognitive diversity, we can notice the benefits of different neuropsychological styles resulting in massively improved creative output and team performance. But every team member first needs safety, knowing that they are authentically included (‘whole-person inclusion’ - ideas, thoughts, feelings, culture, competencies) celebrated, respected, and honored and will therefore, feel that they have the team’s trust.

Creating a culture of neuropsychological safety is not always easy. It requires leaders to be intentional about creating an environment where individuals feel safe to express themselves, even when their ideas may be different from the norm. This can be achieved through a variety of strategies, such as active listening, studying their own emotional intelligence (or ‘how they show up’), soliciting feedback, then using the feedback, and truly valuing and using different perspectives.

Project Aristotle at Google

After analyzing data from hundreds of teams, Google found that psychological safety was the most important factor in team success. Teams with a high level of psychological safety were more productive, had higher employee satisfaction, and were more likely to experiment with new ideas and build innovative solutions.

In addition to fostering a culture of neuro-psychological safety, it is also important for leaders to actively seek out and recruit individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences. This not only helps to ensure that the team is truly diverse, but it also sends a message that the organization values cognitive diversity and is committed to creating a culture where everyone can thrive. Remembering that diversity, a noun or construct shows an organization may celebrate differences, but practicing inclusivity, a verb or action, shows commitment to honor, grow, and protect diversity, and is where the real work begins. Deep-rooted inclusive practice locks in a team's neuropsychological safety where a flourishing culture of trust will emerge!

The neurotransmitters of safety

To ensure psychological safety, certain neurotransmitters need to be making their way to influence team norms. First and foremost the levels of cortisol need to massively reduce. This is evidence of chronic stress level reduction. This won't work by going to a team building work and doing things like crazy and dangerous trust falls. No way. For mastery in chronic stress level reduction, it takes training and daily practice for leaders, who then model and nurture behavior for their teams. Once leaders can embody this kind of calm, clear-headed laser-focused leadership, they may start to create trusting relationships on their team. Plus, we know that trust is only real if it is felt, experienced, and observed. According to Paul Zak and other business school professors, trust can be directly observed in oxytocin levels.

So it's that simple? More oxytocin, more trust in teams? We'll not exactly. In fact, it is the other way around. More trust - more oxytocin. Can you pump oxytocin into your team members' brains? Well, actually you can. It will increase trust but it's very very short-lived and won't change the team culture. If a leader can build rich, meaningful inclusive relationships on their team, they will be nourishing trust, growth, and positivity which is shown to promote oxytocin flow. We clearly need more of these “brainy” trust-promoting leaders for more free-flowing oxytocin in the workplace.

Are you really a leader of your full potential?

A neuro-psychologically safe working environment is essential for unlocking your team's full potential. When employees feel safe, they are more likely to trust one another, collaborate more effectively, and innovate toward a common goal.

Leaders who prioritize trust and respect create a culture of performance. In the presence of a neuropsychologically-safe culture, IQ goes up, heart rates go down, well-being improves, team innovation skyrockets, trust is evidenced and team capacity to learn and retain goes through the roof! Isn't that what every leader wants?

More from Justin James Kennedy, Ph.D., D.Prof.
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