Human Performance, Performance | Jun 22, 2021
We weren’t necessarily talking about psychological safety five years ago and will we still be talking about it in five years’ time?

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Here, the Leaders Performance Institute asks a selection of practitioners to predict how they see perceptions and conversations around psychological safety developing in the next five years.

By John Portch

Part of the fabric

“You’ve also got to be a little bit careful,” says Dr Mustafa Sarkar, the Associate Professor of Sport and Performance Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. “Even resilience, I would argue, can be a buzzword and the danger of buzzwords is that we need to make really crystal clear why that term specifically is being used.

“I think ultimately what you want, within psychological safety, is high levels of performance and high levels of wellbeing,” he continues. “I see psychological safety as more of an environmental or cultural ambition rather than a specific, static thing that you’re either going to be psychologically safe or you’re going to be psychologically unsafe. I would talk about psychological safety on a continuum. And teams cannot be complacent.”

Does the term have a shelf life? “As we’ve said, one of the reasons the concept has entered the world of sport is the research of Amy Edmondson,” he says. “But not just her work, it is also the impact her work is having within other high performance environments, such as business and medicine. I’ve also seen her tweet recently about her work having an impact in politics as well. I don’t think it necessarily has a shelf life but it could be in that four or five years’ time, that this becomes normal practice and the term is not used as often.”

That is Dr Kate Hall’s hope for the AFL. “In five years’ time hopefully we won’t even consider it novel at all,” says the Head of Mental Health & Wellbeing at the AFL. “It’ll be so part of the fabric that it will be truly engrained in how we conduct environments that it will probably be an archaic notion and we might look back and think that it’s not really something we could have imagined not having embodied as an organisation.”

That means each and every athlete and member of staff assuming responsibility. “In the next three years, we hope that it’s part of the cultural shift; that it’s part of those purposeful cultural values that our clubs and our organisation uphold and that the care, compassion and humility; those style of cultural elements for a group of people that’s not so much seen as the wellbeing space but it’s everyone’s responsibility.

“I’d love to see in the next three years for it to move away from mental health and wellbeing, or the player development element and for it to permeate the entire staff and that all players and all staff and all leaders are incumbent to uphold this; that’s the first piece.

“I think we have terrific leaders in wellbeing and they need to pass that baton onto other leaders so that really it’s everybody’s core responsibility to provide an environment that’s psychologically safe and you don’t delegate that to a health professional or a psychologist, doctor or wellbeing manager.”

The demand to win

Dr David Fletcher, the Senior Lecturer in Performance Psychology and Management at Loughborough University, emphasises the need for responsibility, as the demands of elite sport mean the environment will remain inherently unsafe. “What I think will be very interesting looking at the next five years, is the whole wellbeing and welfare movement in elite sport because that’s definitely gaining momentum and traction, with good reason,” he says. “How do we sit that alongside the demands for high performance and wanting to win? That’s not going to go away either. The best athletes and the best coaches are going to have a real need to win.

“We’ve seen in the past, whether it be Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan, this burning desire to succeed at all costs, spills over. There’s a real recognition in elite sport that that does happen and has happened.

“The question now is how can we manage that will to win at all costs? I’m not sure you can do that in people who really want to win; like the people who are training for an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. They’re totally single-minded. It’s not necessarily about taking the edge off that it’s about juggling that to a point where it’s not winning at all costs, it’s winning hopefully without other costs.

“That’s where I hope psychological safety will play a role within that, where it becomes a more sophisticated culture and climate where we can strive to excel, we can strive to win, but not at the cost of cheating, bullying, abuse, fear of failure.

“It’s very easy for me to say it but it’s a lot harder in the cutthroat nature of elite sport. When you start losing people’s jobs and positions are on the line; that’s when this really gets put to the test.

In sport the thing that’s really brought this to the fore is Tanni Grey-Thompson’s report and people have understood and asked, ‘hang on, why can’t athletes feel they can speak out?’ Take Athlete A, the Netflix documentary on gymnastics; the athletes who didn’t think they could speak out. Again, that’s a classic example of a lack of psychological safety.

“I’m hoping over the next five years, the direction of travel is looking at how we can embed more psychologically safe environments within teams but not compromise that striving for excellence and wanting to succeed at the next time.”

Fletcher is, however, aware that this might be easier said than done. “It’s one thing writing a paper on it or talking about it in a conversation, but with a leader or manager with all the different variables fluctuating, trying to optimise that environment when you’ve got so many different personalities is, frankly, where they earn their money.

“Even psychological skills training, we’re sitting down one to one with somebody working on their imagery or their goal-setting, that’s easier and more straightforward, in my opinion, than working at a cultural or climate level, working at interpersonal relationships; or taking lactate testing with an athlete or discussing tactics. Those kind of things are more straightforward than working in that psycho-social space where psychological safety largely resides.”

“That difficulty also presents one of the greatest opportunities over the next five years to not only enhance and optimise performance, but optimise people’s wellbeing as well.”

This article first appeared in the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives. Download now.

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