Psychological safety for leaders: Conversations with Rosa Carrillo (part 2)

March 17, 2021



This is the second in a series of two podcasts with Rosa Carrillo. In this podcast, Rosa and I discuss the importance of psychological safety for leaders. Once again, we reflect upon our personal experiences and discuss the importance of having open conversations to create psychological safety in the workplace.

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[00:00:06] Nippin Anand: Welcome to another episode of Embracing Differences with me Nippin Anand. This podcast series is meant to bring you different perspectives and concepts in safety. The idea really is to create space for thinking and reflection, not to reinforce any grand theories or our prior knowledge on a subject. The aim is to learn and grow, not to remain stagnant. And of course, as I keep saying there is no reason for you to believe me or any so-called expert but keep an open mind and be prepared to challenge your beliefs if you truly want to learn more than what you knew yesterday.

[00:00:44] For those listeners who may be tuning in for the first time, this is the second in the series of two podcasts with Rosa Carrillo. In case you have not had the chance to listen to the first session, it was focused on the role of deep listening in psychological safety. In this session, we will talk more about psychological safety and discuss the role of leaders and people in position of power to influence change in creating the space for psychological safety. I hope you will enjoy this episode and more specifically Rosa’s pearls of wisdom on this topic so here you go.

[00:01:22] Nippin Anand: How do you understand psychological safety?

[00:01:25] Rosa Carrillo: Well since I’m not a psychologist I’ve made it relatively simple for myself. When I began to read about how our brain reacts to the threat of ostracism that’s when everything went off in my brain. I said, “Oh my gosh!” because we’ve all we’ve known that when people feel excluded or they don’t belong be they’re not as productive, they’re not happy, they don’t perform as well. But now we had the MRI and then going back to what you said, now we have definite proof that there is, if you choose to believe it, that there is an actual connection between the thread of ostracism and the fear of death with fear of physical harm and that’s what gets triggered when you find yourself afraid to ask a question or afraid to approach somebody or afraid of losing face.

[00:02:20] It’s that the amygdala hijack of controlling what you’re willing to risk. I said that leadership is responsible for creating psychological safety in their particular team or organization. However, a leader has to create their own psychological safety. So, that means that a leader at any level of the organization if you think about it, because you can have grassroots leaders, they have come to the point where they can say, alright, I’m willing to take this risk and speak up for my comrades or to make a step forward.

[00:02:57] So, I asked myself – do I feel psychologically safe? The answer is absolutely not! I was marginalized, ostracized in every setting that I found myself in. I was the only woman in all white men. I don’t even know how I ended up there. I guess it was a message. You’re sitting there sometimes thinking- How did this happen? How am I going to connect with these people who are so unlike me? What I found was that everybody needs psychological safety. So, the lot of the things that I’m trained in, as an organizational development person, is how to create environments, spaces where you gradually ask people to reveal themselves more and more very slowly and gradually.

[00:03:52] Some of the sessions I’ve had are amazing. One executive group at the university here in California, turned out that almost everyone in the executive team were gay. Who knew? They found out in this meeting. Everybody had been trying to keep it a secret. If it was out, they felt discriminated against and so yes, it’s very it it’s critical. The skilled facilitator, the skilled leader is able to create a space where people know if I make a mistake, it’s gonna be OK.

[00:04:38] Nippin Anand: I’m just listening to you and thinking that why is it so difficult? It sounds like a very simple thing to say that it’s OK to make a mistake and you will still be accepted. I don’t know what you think, but I think it has to do with a deep sense of the conditional love from the time you were born to the time we become self-independent. It’s more or less the idea that you will be accepted only if you did this this and this.

[00:05:04] I mean I remember when I was 17 years old, I left home to join sea for the first time. I was joining a ship was for 18 months. I still remember the words of my mother she said that “Do whatever you know, don’t bring shame to the family by coming back from the ship. Complete your contract and then come back” because there’s a lot of awful lot of pressure on her to say she spent so much money on me put me through this training and all the community is now watching her that what if your son came back, it would be a complete failure. It makes so much sense what you’re talking because you know how much more if she said that, “It does not really matter. If you have a problem, if you face a difficulty, you can always call me”. I’m sure she meant that but the way it came across was that “Do what you can to survive and be a good son and going through all that and I want to see you successful” but the way I took it was that there is no such thing like a failure I must perform on that stage no matter what and I shouldn’t come back home, I should complete those 18 months and it puts you in such a difficult situation that you can never actually express yourself.

[00:06:09] Nippin Anand: I completely get it when you say that you had this session, where you had so many people who didn’t have that straight sex or who are gays. But it took so long to actually speak up and then the funny bit as everyone knows that but nobody’s talking about it. It’s not that people don’t know about it.

So, fascinating what you say, Rosa it is a self-lived experience. I would love to listen little bit more rather than talking.

[00:06:31] Rosa Carrillo: Well, are you familiar with the Art of work?

[00:06:33] Nippin Anand: Yes

[00:06:34] Rosa Carrillo: So, Kelvin has been following my work for many years and had me come to Australia and do some work there. He asked me to put together a course on the relationship factor in human performance and we had safety professionals attending and the whole course was about what we’re talking about. Discussing these things starting with your own psychological safety, with your purpose finding, your anchor. Interesting thing that I did not expect was that some of the people said that for the first time they were considering taking a leadership position because they liked the anonymity of just being a producer. I thought, yeah not everybody wants to be a leader, not everybody wants to be manager, we just assume. It was a great experience and I want to do it more I want to work with safety professionals and fill in what they missed in kindergarten, dealing with what they missed at the University, in terms of, “Hey look at all of these social dynamics, look at the social systems”. Everybody pays lip service to them. They go, “Oh it’s a social technical system!”.

[00:08:09]: If you stop to think about it, the social system is much bigger than the technical system and whenever the technical system fails and do our investigations where do we go back to? Social – because look at BP and what happened in the Macondo well – you know environmental pressures to produce, to make the profits. So, it didn’t matter that there was a very dedicated safety leader there, they were overrun. I don’t know how we can overcome that Nippin, because you know the way the hierarchies and the way that this political power structure is set up, it would be very difficult to just completely change that. You would have to be working for leader that basically wants to see it happen. It’s a leader with power, that I’m talking about like a CEO or even at the plant level if you have a plant manager. That’s all you need. So, it’s not one big corporation, it’s all these little groups and cultures and each one of them is a social field that can be successful if they have the right leader.

[00:09:30] Nippin Anand: Fascinating! I’m just thinking, Rosa. It’s so nice to hear this. Great! I don’t know what to say, honestly.

[00:09:35] Rosa Carrillo: I think let’s go back to your experience. You said that you really did think about just quitting your PhD in the social sciences and you were very fortunate to have the mentor that you had that said, “No! You know, this is your learning barrier. You must to push through it.”

I happen to believe that the right teacher shows up when the student is ready. So, there was something within you that was already there waiting to be born.

[00:10:15] Nippin Anand: Yeah, I think I think this something I believe in very truly which is that when you struggle with something, something good comes out of it. When you’re really struggling to understand something, you’re seeking clarity, I think if you persist, it ends up very fruitful in terms of learning. You get so much more clarity. I have been through that experience many times in my life so I knew this was another experience but it was it was beyond my comprehension. It’s very hard actually. I mean you talk about safety professionals; I can say that many engineers struggled with this idea of going through this experience of the one that you just narrated – being critical, being reflective, challenging your assumptions etc. The problem is you don’t know which assumptions, what to challenge? In anthropology you say “Making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.” I had no idea what this is about is you know this has to be a reference point somewhere for you to fall back upon. There was none. It is hard.

[00:11:16] Rosa Carrillo: It is hard and you might have hit upon the primary. You know, we’re always saying that the managers, the leaders should be out in the field talking to people, having these conversations and we’re not paying attention to the fact that these interactions are very risky. That’s why they stay in their office alright, doing the things that they feel secure doing. They feel comfortable doing those things.

[00:11:49] I just love that that quote that, “A social interaction was the biggest risk you could take as a human being” because you read these things that people wrote decades ago and you’re thinking why didn’t I see this before? It makes so much sense about why people do what they do. So, what can you do? You’re an influencer, Nippin, you are interviewing me and I feel very comfortable. I feel you’re listening because of the type of questions and reflections that you give me.

[00:12:23] How did you learn to do that ’cause it sounds like you had you had to have a trajectory of learning to get to where you are now and that might be your base of what you need to share with your clients, with your executive clients – that pathway of learning. You were socialized, then you lost that part of you, but it still was there and it is the time for it to come alive. The question is what do you want to do with it?

[00:12:56] Nippin Anand: Yeah, I think I apply it in my work, where there’s lot of reflective sessions I do within the workshops. I design them very much along the lines of the work of Nancy Klein. She wrote the book, ‘Time to think’ in the principles of a thinking environment. I’m surprised that her work is not as well-known as many other authors. But I think there’s lots to inspire from Nancy Klein.

[00:13:26] Rosa Carrillo: You are now inspiring me to read her book.

[00:13:28] Nippin Anand: Oh, she’s wonderful! Have you heard the name before?

[00:13:29] Rosa Carrillo: Yes

[00:13:30] Nippin Anand: She basically encourages the idea of a thinking organization like creating space for thinking in the organization and then how do you do so at different levels? I can’t articulate that now but the principles are something like acknowledgment, silence, she talks about 7 or 8 principles of thinking at an organizational level and I have been following her work very closely. I haven’t had a chance to attend any other workshops but I have been reading her work and it’s very practical and I apply it and is very fruitful also.

[00:14:07] Rosa Carrillo: So, you use that with your clients to help them process and reflect?

[00:14:09] Nippin Anand: Indeed, so when I design my workshops, one of the things, I try to do is that talk less and then kind of encourage people to talk more. I find it quite helpful both ways. In fact, one of things, you find interesting with many other clients is that when they meet, there’s so much, they want to talk and the worst thing you can do is you interrupt that conversation and try to show that you actually have a solution to everything. The truth is you know nothing about anything.

[00:14:45] Rosa Carrillo: It’s such a battle because the client always wants OK, we’ll meet for two hours or for four hours. Well, this would take about a week! It’s always a search for the client who’s ready to devote the time you. You’re reminding me of Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer have been working with generative, social fields and education. Are you familiar with them?

[00:15:23] Nippin Anand: No, I’m not but are you talking about Peter Senge? I’ve been following his work on learning organization.

[00:15:29] Rosa Carrillo: Yeah, he is into education now. MIT has this big project that we are working with schools all over the country and applying the learning organization principles as well. They really have a three-pronged approach which is they teach the children social intelligence, they teach them systems thinking, and then they teach them mindfulness.

[00:15:53] The teachers are trained in how to create what they call generative social field. So basically, that’s any group is a social field also but say, an association or society as a social field. So in in the generative social field you create a safe space to learn and fail, fail and learn. Now that’s one thing applied to children, right? Because you’re there and you’re doing a little experiment or whatever but, in our organizations, failures can cause big disasters.

[00:16:30] So, what do you think about the fact that would it work to create a safe space if you were looking at failures and learning all along? Would that help to prevent the larger failure because we don’t want to accept the fact that people will fail and they learn from failure we don’t want to accept that because of the fear of the big accident. But is it possible that in the microcosm you know, because we’re moving through time, means that we do when you’re able to do that fail and learn is it possible that that would help to prevent the larger failure?

[00:17:13] Nippin Anand: First of all, I get it is a great question so let me see if I understood the question right. So, what you’re saying is that is it possible for organizations to start experimenting with failures, with small failures so that you don’t end up into a catastrophe and how do you achieve that? Is that the question?

[00:17:33] Rosa Carrillo: Yes. Experiments – right I like that. The small experiments which may result in failure. They don’t always result in failure.

[00:17:46] Nippin Anand: Doesn’t that happen all the time, Rosa? In every organization you’re failing all the time. It’s just that some failures phenomenologically show up.  So, to talk about for example, you take the case of Costa Concordia. There are the ingredients of Costa Concordia happening in every organization all the time. Most of the times and they get recorded extremely well in the sense that you know has an observation, near misses, operational failures, technical failures, non-conformance. There is a real rich story behind most of these failures. What organizations are not very good at doing is to seek nuances behind these failures.

[00:18:25] So, what is the real conversation here? To use your word conversation and I think if we start to create what Peter Senge calls local reflections of those failures are huge opportunities to learn from failures that don’t translate into ugly outcomes and yet people feel very safe to talk about them because you know nothing bad has really happened. Why do safety meetings tend to be a mechanism for social control? Why not an opportunity to actually get people to discuss something tangible? You know we talk about things that go well. There is no such thing like things going well. At the end of the day, you have to anchor your discussions on something concrete because that’s what practitioners want. They want something concrete so one of the things I find very powerful is that here’s a small little thing that happened and why don’t we create a conversation around it? Once you are able to create a conversation around it, I think you have you have achieved a lot from that conversation at a local level and then your job as an organization is to spread that message as Peter Senge you say to create broader awareness of that local reflection. So, I think in my view that’s one way of achieving it.

Local reflections and broader awareness.

[00:19:44] Rosa Carrillo: So, I think the thing is though that the people running these meetings don’t have the skills to do that, right?

[00:19:49] Nippin Anand: Indeed, this is what I love about this one thing. I don’t advocate for anyone theory but one thing I find particularly powerful about the safety II, for example, is that it is suddenly given people a vocabulary to engage with. Suddenly you have a vocabulary of goal conflicts, of time constraints, resource constraints, that there is something which is different from how you imagine – this work as done and this work as imagine.

[00:20:18] So how do we give people that language to talk about these small little failures that happen all the time and create some context around it and have those discussions? I think that could be a really powerful way to learn from failures or experiment with failures.

[00:20:36] When I sent you the website link* the other day, this is something we are trying to achieve that when a near miss happens, send it back to the people to say this is how it is. What do you think about it? and what we do? Is more or less take that data from the people and we just remove it in both time and space and we do an analysis sitting in the office which has absolutely of no relevance to people who did the work. They cannot connect with that analysis and this so-called centralized learning, where a small group of people who are so far removed from work will decide what is good for people often through safety bulletins and newsletters. People can’t relate with that at all.

[00:21:15] Rosa Carrillo: No, it’s dismissed. Again, going back to true communication only happens when trust is present in a relationship. Very few corporate one of the biggest frustrations is “Gosh! This this mind over here has some wonderful things going on, let’s communicate it to all the other minds and why aren’t they listening? Why aren’t they implementing?”

[00:21:45] Nippin Anand: One of the fascinating things about seafaring is that there is a combination of scarcity and abundance. As a seafarer you carry all the time that resources are always limited and because you spend so much time in that profession, there’s an abundance of knowledge and skill and the willingness to do the right thing. So, when you bring the scarcity of resources together with abundance of knowledge, people are so wanting to talk about these things. About what they did to make things work and spread this knowledge far and wide. We just need to recognize this and make it happen and what scares many organizations is that – Well, what happens if the insurers come to understand that people are doing things differently from how we document it? Well, people are already doing that all the time. It’s just that you are so disconnected from it.

[00:22:35] Rosa Carrillo: That’s right acceptance is a big word.

[00:22:37] Nippin Anand: This is where I love the work of Greg Smith, the Australian lawyer, because what he says is that the only thing it’s not the law. It’s not operations, it’s not safety, the only thing that scares people is uncertainty. That they will find something that they were not aware of because even from a legal perspective it makes no sense at all to hide behind those rules and procedures which people are not following anyway. So, it goes back to Max Weber’s idea of how do you connect process with purpose? And do you do that through conversations?

[00:23:06] Rosa Carrillo: Well, the only way other than you know direct power enforcing, telling what to do, but those of us who are mere humans can only do it through conversation.

I really like when you were talking about how you were educated with and then you have to make this transition because it’s really the transformation that needs to happen at the individual level and of course, many safety professionals are already there. Maybe we should have a gathering of all the people that have had to make that transformation in and come up with what are the key questions to ask yourself or what are the key points in the process?

[00:23:57] Nippin Anand: You know there was the work of Peter Senge for example. It’s a wonderful thing he says in the book on organizational learning – What is leadership? What is the meaning of leadership? He says that the origin of the term comes from the term Leith which is a place down south where I live but Leith basically means ‘threshold’ that at some point in life you have the pressure that transformed you as a person and this is very unique to leaders.

[00:24:25]: I find it very powerful that if you talk to people who have children with learning disabilities. You find people like this are much more open to new ideas than many other people because at some point in life they have been transformed completely and I think that is a really powerful way to understand what a leader is? Are you willing to throw away that baggage and accept something that that is very uncomfortable in many ways?

[00:25:00] Rosa Carrillo: The author of The Crucible – same idea. He interviewed leaders and asked what was your transformation point and it was always something as you mentioned. A big challenge that caused them to review all of their assumptions. In our case we had a lifetime of challenges. The interesting thing is when you’re being suppressed from questioning the assumptions right?

Children always question – Why why why? and we want to push them down and perhaps we do that in the workplace too much as well.

[00:25:35] Nippin Anand: It’s exactly what you said you know my wife is just doing the opposite now she’s encouraging children to talk more because she has very similar experiences with her childhood also so to the point that it’s become difficult to answer questions from the kids. They’re so inquisitive about everything.

[00:25:49] Rosa Carrillo: Well, I learned a good tip – Question: Why do you think that is? And you get the best responses!

Alright, Nippin well thank you, I’ve enjoyed this and I’ve enjoyed getting to know you.

[00:26:28] Nippin Anand: Rosa, it’s been a great conversation. There’s so much to draw from it. I thought of one topic but we wandered through so many different topics. I learned so much! Thank you so much for giving me the time.

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