The “Trick or Treat” of Psychological Safety

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Tomorrow is Halloween! 

(If you haven’t picked up candy for your trick-or-treaters, this is your reminder to do that tonight after work!)

It may feel like a strange juxtaposition, but thinking about Halloween also made me think of psychological safety, something I’ve been speaking and teaching about more and more.

Why is Halloween the perfect metaphor for understanding psychological safety in legal organizations?

Just as children go door to door exclaiming "trick or treat," employees in legal organizations often navigate a delicate balance of unpredictability when it comes to their interactions with colleagues and superiors. When lawyers, legal professionals, and team members have psychological safety, it’s like ringing the doorbell on Halloween, seeing the door open, hearing a warm laugh, and seeing the much-envied king-sized candy bars in the candy bowl.

And the absence of psychological safety can turn the workplace into a house of horrors, much like a Halloween night gone awry.

What is psychological safety?

Coined by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, psychological safety refers to the perception that it's safe to take interpersonal risks in the workplace without the fear of negative consequences. In a legal organization, where complex and high-stakes issues abound, fostering psychological safety is essential. It encourages open communication, idea sharing, and innovation, which are all vital for success. However, achieving psychological safety in our field can be challenging, given the traditionally hierarchical and competitive nature of the profession.

Five Ways to Create Psychological Safety in Legal Organizations:

Encourage Open Dialogue: Lawyers and legal professionals often work in high-pressure environments where the potential for error can have significant consequences. Encouraging open and honest conversations about challenges without fear of judgment can make employees feel more at ease. Leaders should be receptive to feedback and willing to engage in constructive conversations.

Lead by Example: The leadership within legal organizations must set the tone for psychological safety. When superiors model vulnerability and openness, it can empower their teams to do the same. Acknowledging their own mistakes and demonstrating a commitment to learning and improvement can be contagious.

Establish Clear Expectations: Uncertainty can be unsettling. By establishing clear expectations for performance and behavior, employees can better understand what is required of them and how their actions align with the organization's values and goals. This clarity can reduce anxiety and promote psychological safety.

Promote Collaboration over Competition: Lawyers and legal professionals are often measured against each other, which can create a cutthroat atmosphere. Encourage collaboration and teamwork rather than pitting colleagues against one another. Highlight collective achievements and acknowledge the contributions of all team members.

Offer Support and Resources: Lawyers and legal professionals may grapple with intense workloads, long hours, and stress. Providing resources for mental health and well-being, such as counseling services and flexible work arrangements, can create a safety net for employees to turn to when needed.

Now, here's a Halloween-related twist on the topic: Imagine that psychological safety in a legal organization is like a costume party. If employees feel safe, they'll don their creative costumes with enthusiasm, knowing they won't be ridiculed or judged. But if they fear ridicule or reprisal, they might choose a generic costume or avoid the party altogether. To foster a vibrant costume party – or, in this case, a workplace filled with innovative ideas and effective teamwork – organizations must ensure their employees feel comfortable enough to express themselves fully.

In essence, psychological safety in a legal organization is the difference between a Halloween party where everyone has a blast and a night of awkward encounters and unfulfilled potential. 

So, let's aim for the former – a workplace where employees can enjoy the "treat" of a supportive and nurturing environment, leaving the "tricks" for the spooky Halloween festivities!

Happy Halloween!