Psychological safety for in-house lawyers

How psychological safety for individuals and teams can increase effectiveness

Donna McGrath on 15/12/21

Have you ever held back from asking a question at work because you don’t want to look ignorant? Have you ever felt overwhelmed with your volume of work and not felt secure enough to speak up in case others think you’re not coping? Have you ever not challenged something because you don’t want to be seen to be negative? Have you ever backed away from a challenge or a solution to avoid the impression that you’re undermining your boss?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s likely that you don’t (or didn’t) feel psychologically secure at work.

Purpose

One purpose of this article is to highlight how important psychological safety is to the culture of the legal sector, the wellbeing of lawyers and how it impacts their performance, influence and success. 

However, my key objective here is to provide:

  • Legal leaders with a framework to increase psychological safety in their teams; and
  • Individuals with tools for building personal resilience in a low psychologically safe environment.

What is psychological safety? 

Psychological safety is a term first coined in the 1960s by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis from MIT, Antioch College. In their book, Personal and Organisational Change Through Group Methods, they defined psychological safety as:

“… an atmosphere where one can take chances without fear and with sufficient protection”

It’s not just leaders who are responsible for creating this atmosphere - everyone is. 

Why should lawyers focus on psychological safety?

It’s no secret that mental health issues are on the increase among people who work in the legal profession. (Various Lawcare reports). Combative, competitive, perfectionist, pressurised, controlled and judgmental are just some of the words used (by most of my clients on the In-House Lawyers Leadership Programme (ILLP) to describe the culture we operate in. 

According to the Lexis Nexis Bellwether Report 2019, Stress in the Legal Profession: Problematic or Inevitable?, the legal profession lags behind most other sectors in combating mental health. Also, in the great resignation, many lawyers left the profession due to burnout, exhaustion and stress. 

With all this in mind, there’s a real need for change in the legal profession. Psychological safety is the opposite of combative, competitive, perfectionist, pressurised, controlled and judgmental. It’s the foundation of a safe environment where lawyers collaborate instead of compete, help each other grow instead of judge and are open and curious instead of controlled and aloof. 

In this environment lawyers are less stressed, more innovative, happier and more productive. Here, I set out how you can kickstart improvement in your teams’ psychological safety and enjoy these benefits. 

Creating psychological safety

So how do you create a psychologically safe environment?

First, recognise that everyone has a role to play. Some employees believe that leaders are solely responsible for the behaviours in the workplace. They don’t believe they have the power to change their own environment. Below I set out some top tips to help lawyers empower themselves and support others to speak up. In this way, they can create a more psychologically safe environment for themselves.  

Equally, employees need a supportive and sustainable framework that promotes  psychological safety. Later in this article, I set out a framework to help in-house leaders to achieve just that.

Top tips for personal psychological safety 

Know yourself. By defining your values, your purpose and the value you offer your organisation (your soft skills, hard skills and your development goals), you’ll get a stronger sense of self. Taking the time to explore and define what’s important to you and what motivates you will increase  your self-awareness and self-worth. In turn you’ll be more likely to operate from a place of safety and feel confident to speak up.  

When my clients clarify and become (re) aligned to their purpose, values and value proposition, they find it much easier to speak up from a place of strength, irrespective of their environment. 

How aligned are you on your purpose, values and value proposition?

Don’t judge, be kind. Organisations with low psychological safety tend to have a heightened sense of disempowerment and negativity within their workforce. When individuals are in a negative mindset, they tend not to feel safe and are more likely to operate from fear. 

Did you know our behaviour is determined by our emotions, thoughts and belief systems? Did you know you can influence others’ emotions, thoughts and beliefs by the way you interact with them?  

You can help reduce people’s fear by a) not judging their behaviour, b) showing a curious professional interest in them and c) offering support.

This will help create deeper relationships and trust – which are essential for a psychologically safe environment. 

How often do you react to other people’s behaviours? 

Don’t give your power away. A lot of my clients on the ILLP say they feel undervalued, particularly when they feel they are:

  • Not being listened to;
  • Brought into a process late by stakeholders; 
  • Treated like a rubber stamp; or 
  • Ignored when they speak up. 

Have you ever felt like this? If so, you’re probably giving your value away by placing it in the hands of your stakeholders. 

To pull this back, realign yourself to your purpose, then reframe your approach by thinking about what your stakeholders need rather than what you need. When we enter a conversation with others’ needs in mind - and not focus on our own emotions - we tend to feel safer about that conversation.

How many times have you thought, “they don’t understand”, or “they don’t care”?

Increasing psychological safety for teams: a framework

To help employees reach the place where they feel comfortable with interpersonal risk-taking, leaders should nurture their team’s psychological safety. Here’s how to help create a psychologically safe workplace:

Make psychological safety a priority. Make your intentions clear. Tell your team and peers that you want to improve psychological safety at work and encourage your team to speak up.

Work with your team to define its purpose, vision and values (or behavioural charter). Consult with them regularly to keep the behavioural charter refreshed, updated and relevant. This will help you win buy-in and ongoing support from your team. 

How consistent are you in telling others that psychological safety is a priority for you? 

Become self-aware and promote self-awareness. All leaders seek to improve performance, impact and influence in their teams. However, they’re not always fully aware of what’s working and what isn’t. In particular, they may not know how their own behaviour is affecting their team’s psychological safety. Maximise your self-awareness by: 

  • Asking your team via a survey whether they believe you create a psychological safe place and what you should stop, start and continue to do to increase psychological safety;
  • Being consciously aware of your communication and leadership styles and the affect they have on your colleagues’ willingness to speak up. For example, if you have a RED / Dominant style on the Insights or DiSC profile, you could be shutting down people with  a GREEN / Steady style if you’re too direct. Some people gain greater awareness when they undertake theirs and their whole team’s profile;
  • Speaking to team members 1:1. How you interact with them affects their likelihood to speak up. Ask the team what they think you can do to create a safer place for them to speak up. Embrace and implement their ideas; and 
  • Reviewing this every six months and speaking with new starters about what encourages them to speak up.

How aware are you of the things you say and do that may hinder your team from speaking up effectively?

Reframe mistakes as opportunities to learn. Encourage learning from failure and disappointment (as opposed to punishment) by:

  • Making it clear that it’s OK for your team not to be perfect and that it’s safe to experiment; 
  • Openly sharing lessons learned from mistakes - this will encourage your team to speak about their mistakes; 
  • Not punishing experimentation and reasonable risk-taking; and 
  • Setting loose parameters for your team to operate independently within.

Create a communicative development framework. As well as involving your team in setting its purpose, values and behaviours, ways to do this include:

  • Creating opportunities and encouraging your team to socialise and have fun outside the working environment. When team members connect at a deeper level, they’re more inclined to be open and express themselves without the fear of being adversely judged. It fosters understanding and appreciation within the team and encourages enhanced collaboration and innovation; 
  • Creating a separate development and learning framework for your team to support its growth and development. This should focus on helping them become more self–aware and develop their emotional resilience. In turn, it will allow them to overcome any personal challenges they have in speaking up; 
  • Bringing your team together regularly to talk about lessons learnt. Maybe build this into your team meetings and your 1:1s?
  • Sharing your own vulnerabilities - let the team know that if things go wrong it’s an opportunity to learn and improve; and
  • Keeping communication lines open in group and 1:1 settings. Prioritise your 1:1s. If you start cancelling these, you’ll lose trust.

Replace blame and criticism with curiosity. If there’s a behavioural or performance issue, or if something simply goes wrong, this is when you’ll be tested as a leader.

If team members sense that you’re trying to blame them for something (or if you convey a message that someone else has criticised them) you become their sabre-toothed tiger. John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington shows that blame and criticism escalate conflict as they create defensiveness and, eventually, disengagement.

Replace blame with a curious, non-judgemental, mindset by:

  • Removing your emotional needs from the conversation so that you can be fully present for the other person; 
  • Not assuming you have all the facts or know what might be going on for the other person;
  • Stating your observations without judgement. Use caring, personable, neutral language. Contrary to other advice, avoid being too factual as it can appear cold. Instead, be personable as this will more likely encourage openness; 
  • Being empathetic to responses and looking at the situation from their perspective;
  • Not disagreeing when they respond. Instead agree, appease and ask (AAA’s) them open curious questions to understand what might be affecting them. Open questions that start with who, what, where, which, when or how. Stay away from why. Psychologist Christina Rigoli says, “It can come off as accusatory, blame-attributing, interrogatory and can instantly set off defence mechanisms”;
  • Asking for them for solutions. The people who are responsible for creating a problem often hold the keys to solving it. That’s why a positive outcome typically depends on their input and buy-in; and
  • Asking directly, “What do you think needs to happen here?” Or “What would be your ideal scenario?” Another important question to ensure they feel supported and will lead to solutions is: “How could I support you?”

Get everyone speaking up. When someone is brave enough to challenge the status quo, be open-minded, compassionate and empathetic. Show genuine curiosity and honour candour and truth-telling. Follow the AAAs in the above paragraph. Also:

  • Be conscious of the usual suspects who speak up as they can drown out other voices. Make a point of asking quieter types for their thoughts and opinions;
  • Be aware certain team members may not have formulated their views. Give them time to think and then ask them; and
  • Be aware of highly creative, out-of-the box thinkers whose ideas aren’t fully formulated. Acknowledge their contribution so as not to shut them down. Engage and embrace these people as they’re likely to keep coming up with innovative ideas. 

Embrace productive conflict. Promote dialogue and productive debate, and work to resolve conflicts productively. Leaders can set the stage for incremental change by establishing team expectations for factors that contribute to psychological safety. With your team, discuss these questions:

  • How can team members communicate their concerns about a process that isn’t working?
  • How can reservations be shared with colleagues in a respectful manner? and
  • What are our norms for managing conflicting perspectives?

In conclusion

Psychological safety is key to improving yours and your teams’ wellness, productivity and impact. It’s very easy for lawyers to go into delivering and “doing” mode (I know – I’ve been there). Our challenge is to prioritise our mental wellness and that of others. By doing this we make time to put effort into changing the environment into one that we all feel more psychologically safe in.

I see people do this in the ILLP every week. You have the power to make a change for you and others.

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