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How do trust and psychological safety affect performance?

A culture of trust and psychological safety is often dichotomised with performance. But is it really true that it’s one or the other? Or could people in trusting and psychologically safe working cultures actually perform better? In this blog Johan Mellerup Traekjaer writes about the connection of trust and psychological safety to energy management, and through that, to the performance in the workplace.

Energy management has become of increasing interest to the cognitive neurosciences because it seems to be at the centre of cognitive organisation and performance. Due to our energy-hungry brain and body, we are wired to minimise the uncertainty of not being able to secure, maintain and manage energy for ourselves and those we care for. Managing energy is our primary biological objective and fulfilling (or not fulfilling) this nature driven objective affects our performance in the workplace significantly. 

The levels of trust and psychological safety we assess in our immediate environment signals to us how well we are doing in terms of energy budgeting. The primary metrics for us to assess how well we are attaining this objective, are the state of our relationships, our social status, our power and especially our job-control. Looking at the issue from this perspective, trust and psychological safety are not solely issues for the HR department. 

Energy management at work

For 2,5 million years, humans have cooperated in small groups in order to survive. Because of this, our mental faculties are biased towards the social world and the relationships we have with people around us and the feelings of trust and (psychological) safety really matter. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that you start your day with 100 units of energy. 

You are on your way to work in a train, as the first email arrives: an angry superior complaining about a product you’re responsible for. You suddenly feel less trusting about your place in the company, which consumes 10 units of your energy. As you get to work and enter the first meeting at 8:30, you are to present a new proposal you have been working on for the past two weeks. The team is very divided about the matter and before you get to the end of your presentation, one of your team members starts attacking your proposal. Because we are social species, attacks on our work can easily feel like attacks on a personal level, reducing our feelings of psychological safety. That takes away 20 units of your energy. After the attack, a serious argument breaks out around the table, further lowering the levels of trust and psychological safety, consuming another 20 units, so now you are down to 50 units of energy and it’s only 10am.

After the meeting you have a short chat with your boss who gives you feedback about the meeting. She thinks you should take more control when presenting, but in your perspective your boss just doesn’t care about the serious divides in the team. You have raised the problem before with no effect, so you feel defeated and decide not to raise the same issue again. This incident takes away another 20 units of your energy. After the chat with your boss, you notice that everybody is talking about an email that has just arrived from the top management regarding the upcoming changes in the company. As you begin to read the email, you soon notice that a project you have spent more than six months of hard energy on is now out in the cold. The disappointment and increased uncertainty about your role consume 20 units more of your energy, leaving you with only 10 units for the rest of the day. 

By the time you are leaving the office in the afternoon, having survived on coffee and stress-hormones, your energy tank is far on the negative side, and you have nothing left to use with your loved ones and on your free time. Needless to say, the next day at work you will start your day with less than 100 units of energy and the energy consuming hole just keeps getting deeper. 

Why trust and psychological safety are good for performance   

As seen in the example above, we don’t have unlimited amounts of energy. In an organisational setting, whether or not we are to spend our energy on conflicts, low trust issues and general feelings of unpredictability, is largely up to the top management and the culture or the organisation. In a high trust, high safety environment we can allocate all our energy towards the productive work and can even have some energy left after the workday. We can even gain more energy during the day, because being part of a tight nit team of adults often re-energises us. But here’s the catch: What makes me feel safe and trusting, is not always the same as it is for you. 

To lead and facilitate a high trust, high safety environment, leaders must be able to work with all the different dynamics and personalities in their teams, especially their own. If a leader lets their own needs get in the way of seeing what would make the team successful and tries to avoid the personal feelings of uncertainty on the team’s expense, success is unlikely to follow. This is why organisational transformation always starts with the vertical development of the responsible leaders. Vertical development gradually expands the leaders’ capacity of dealing with complexity and uncertainty, which eventually allows them to create more trust and psychological safety within the organisation. 

But it’s not about feeling all nice and cuddly all the time. There is a place for feeling safely unsafe as well. For an organisation to succeed, the individuals within must feel sufficiently trusting and psychologically safe so that they can become professionally unsafe. This is a crucial prerequisite for change and development to happen, because often the only things giving us safety are our professional knowledge and opinions. If we cannot trust that we are valued and appreciated regardless of those, and if we feel too unsafe to reveal opinions and ideas that might not be “right” or ready, we are most likely just going to do all we can to keep things exactly as they are. Safe and unchanged. Going into a space of professional unsafety is only possible with a leader who can take the team to a vulnerable place. This demands a tremendous amount of trust and psychological safety. In this journey, the leaders must lead by example and let go of clinging to their title or power as a defence against low trust and low safety. Only this way can a truly trusting and psychologically safe culture be built, to set the organisation up for success.