Psychological Safety and Me

Psychological Safety and Me

After my second maternity leave, I returned to my part-time position with the provincial government. Back then, I knew it was a rarity to be able to work flexibly and part-time. Additionally, my old boss had very recently accepted a new position in London, England so I was weary of who took his place. When I heard it was a male colleague slightly younger than myself, I was somewhat encouraged. I assumed a young man would not have many issues with an employee returning from maternity leave.

My assumption was wrong. Dustin immediately met me in my office. He did not spend a lot of time getting to know me but had done some research on my reputation and knew I was a dedicated, professional hard worker. Yet, he immediately said he wanted me back full time. I had been working part-time successfully after my first child was born. I was a bit discombobulated when he asked me to return full time. Somewhat so because finding decent childcare is difficult enough- to find full time decent childcare for two toddlers on little to no notice was almost an impossible challenge.

When I decided to broach Dustin about coming back part-time, he very quickly shooed me into an office so that nobody else could hear our conversation. I tried to convince him that I was able to work part-time very successfully under his successor. His successor trusted me implicitly and often joked that I could do part-time what most could do full-time. I remember Dustin’s daunting words like it was yesterday.

“Tina, my wife and I have made the conscious decision that she will stay home with our children till they enter school”.

I certainly did not know the official term then, however, now realize that Dustin had an unconscious bias against working mothers. He truly did not feel a mother could be 100% committed to her job and 100% committed to her children. He certainly did not care about what I was going through. Returning to work after a maternity leave is daunting enough. Returning to work to a new boss that frightens you is another story. Frightens you like the boogie man? No. Frightens you because of his ignorance? Yes.

It was in that moment that I also felt psychologically unsafe for the first but not necessarily last time in a role. I knew that nothing I said mattered at that moment. I knew that I would never receive a promotion- lateral or otherwise- at that moment. I felt afraid, vulnerable, sad, angry, and very tired in that moment. I was a young Mom of two young children who spent countless hours interviewing dayhomes so that I could be at the workplace wholeheartedly, fully and present. I couldn’t believe that this privileged young man could hold such unyielding yet undeserved power against me without even knowing me.

I was taught by my stoic Mom never to show weakness with tears. Even as a very small child when I’d cry I remember her distinctly saying, “don’t cry”. I never knew nor asked why crying was bad. For a very long time and even to this day I have a difficult time crying in front of others. Looking back, I, too, have an unconscious bias against women who cry in the office.  Our unconscious biases are formed from our past. Our conscious biases are formed by our future. A dear friend who managed a large accounting staff used to joke that ‘Friday was Cryday’ as his female colleagues would always pile into his office and cry about colleagues, workplace politics, too much of a workload on Fridays. Hence, I scooted out of Dustin’s makeshift office and knocked tentatively on a colleague’s door- one of the only women in the office who had a young toddler at home. She could tell I was distraught and as I relayed the story I started to cry. Sob really. She looked at me with empathy and awkwardness as she truly was powerless in the moment as well. Our shared stories breed commonality and vulnerability in the moment.

Pity parties never last long with me. I break, boil, recalibrate and rebound. They say what softens the potato boils the egg. It’s not the circumstances but what we are made of that matter. Some may call it resilience. I call it potato salad because sometimes I am the potato; sometimes the egg- and either is ok. I sought out the only part-time job in government and applied for the position- a part-time maternity leave in the innovation and technology department that, in retrospect, I was not qualified for whatsoever. I got the job. I left Dustin. Because that’s what employees do when they don’t feel psychologically safe in work environments. At first, they put up and shut up…then eventually they leave.

Psychological safety need not be complicated. When an employee can share ideas, ask questions, communicate openly and authentically without fear of retribution nor negative consequence then a psychological safe workplace exists. It need not be complicated yet from my observations working with hundreds of organizations seems almost as elusive as spotting a Unicorn.

Observationally and anecdotally speaking, as a professional speaker and trainer I can genuinely tell if a workplace is psychologically safe within minutes of working with them by one indicator. Silence. Silence in the chat during a virtual keynote. Silence during group activities during training. Silence during initial meet and greets.

I do not define leaders by title, rank nor position but rather by those whom can influence, impact and inspire.

Ask yourself- are you surrounded by silence at work or at home? If yes, you have not created a psychologically safe environment.

Period. End of Story. It need not be complicated. Surround yourself by loquacious unicorns.

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Tina Varughese