An article by Dr. David Weiss, who will be speaking at HRPA’s upcoming Toronto Chapter event on September 22. This exciting event marks the return of in-person HRPA Chapter events (stay tuned for more of these). Attendees at this experiential learning event with chocolate (yes, you read that right) will hear from Dr. Weiss about psychological safety and employee coaching in the workplace. Dr. Weiss’s article below provides helpful context on this timely topic for business and HR professionals.

With a broad smile the executive joined me, delighted with the outcome of the meeting. He boasted that the executive team reached agreement on everything he suggested without dissent, and he felt that it was a very successful event. As a result of our conversation, he became aware that it was really surprising for ten senior members of his team to reach agreement without differences of opinion. Together, we considered whether members were unwilling to speak up and offer different opinions and whether the executive truly knew what others believed about the topics they discussed.

This situation depicts what is referred to as psychological safety.  Groups that are psychologically safe consist of individuals who are willing to contribute ideas and even challenge the opinions of others (including the authority) without fear of being punished or reprimanded.  In fact, those individuals are often celebrated for bringing forward alternative views to enable consideration of options and to achieve better decision-making. 

The purpose of this article is to present the impact of psychological safety on coaching within organizations. The proposition is that the extent of the psychological safety on a team will have a direct impact on the ease and effectiveness with which people managers can engage in coaching their employees. 

Coaching is generally of two kinds: Sometimes an employee initiates the request for coaching with a manager, and at other times the people manager initiates the request to coach an employee.  In both of these scenarios, the level of psychological safety will contribute directly to how the people manager should approach the coaching situation.

When the employee initiates the coaching with a people manager and the psychological safety is high, the coaching process becomes much easier for the people manager and the employee. The employee will likely approach the people manager at an early stage of the issue without fear of being viewed negatively. The level of crisis will be lower, and a positive outcome will be easier to achieve.

In contrast, in situations where a low level of psychological safety exists, employees are often unwilling to speak up, contribute ideas or challenge other people’s perspectives for fear of being reprimanded or punished.  In those situations when an employee would like to initiate coaching with a people manager, the employee may delay approaching the people manager for fear of being dismissed, reprimanded or looked upon negatively.  The employee might initiate coaching only when there is no other option or at a late and advanced stage.  The implication for people managers is that they should be aware of the level of psychological safety. If it is low, they should be ready to respond to employee-initiated coaching with a sense of urgency to mitigate the risk that the employee’s issue is at an advanced stage.

The table below summarizes the impact of the level of psychological safety on coaching initiated by an employee.

Table 1: Impact of Psychological Safety on Coaching Initiated by an Employee

Low Level of
Psychological Safety

High Level of
Psychological Safety

Coaching Initiated by an Employee The employee’s situation is likely at an advanced stage and requires a response with a sense of urgency. The employee’s situation is likely at an earlier stage where the level of crisis is lower and a positive outcome is easier to achieve.

Impact of Psychological Safety on Coaching Initiated by a People Manager

In a situation where the people manager initiates the coaching with an employee and a high level of psychological safety exists, there is a greater possibility that the employee will be open to the people manager’s comments and not respond to the people manager’s observation as criticism. It’s feasible that the employee will see the coaching as an opportunity to discuss the situation, identify options and determine next steps.

In contrast, low levels of psychological safety will have a predictable impact on an employee’s response to a people manager who wants to initiate a coaching discussion.  In those situations, it is likely the employee will respond with anxiety to the people manager’s request for coaching. In addition, the employee might interpret the people manager’s observations during coaching as criticism, and the employee may, therefore, react defensively.  The lack of psychological safety will make the coaching initiated by a people manager far more challenging for both the people manager and the employee.

The table below summarizes the impact of the level of psychological safety on coaching initiated by a people manager.

Table 2: Impact of Psychological Safety on Coaching Initiated by a People Manager

 

Low Level of
Psychological Safety

High Level of
Psychological Safety

Coaching Initiated by a People Manager Employee likely to respond with anxiety and be more defensive Employee likely to respond with openness to coaching and be less defensive

 

Conclusion

All coaching occurs within a context.  The context is experienced by each person subjectively, and it is important to appreciate that the level of psychological safety is a key variable in the context.  The implication is that the level of psychological safety is a key predictor for the ease and effectiveness of coaching in the workplace.  In addition, when there is psychological safety, coaching will likely occur much earlier, with less defensiveness and with much better outcomes.

Author’s Background:
David S. Weiss, Ph.D., ICD.D, CHRE, FHRPA, is the President & CEO of Weiss International Ltd. a firm specializing in leadership coaching, innovative solutions, and HR consulting. David is a Ph.D. Psychologist, a certified coach with the International Coaching Federation, and a Certified Life and Wellness Coach with the Canada Coach Academy. David is also affiliate faculty at Schulich and St. Mary’s University. Previously, he was the VP & Chief Innovation Officer of a multi-national firm, an Affiliate Professor at the Rotman School of Management, and a Senior Research Fellow of Queen’s University. David has authored or co-authored seven books, including the bestselling books: Innovative Intelligence, and Leadership-Driven HR. Join David’s 50,000 LinkedIn followers and 21,000 connections to see his daily LinkedIn infographic posts and read more about Dr. David Weiss on Wikipedia or on his firm’s website, at http://www.weissinternational.ca/

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