One day, Lucy Parsons’ boss arrived at work without his usual moustache. It was a small thing, but she felt stressed. Should she mention it or not? Would it be OK to make a quick joke or at least ask what happened?
Back then, she was a 23-year-old who had just completed her company’s graduate scheme. She was working on interesting projects at a retail firm in the UK and her career path looked promising. But she struggled to grasp the small, unwritten rules of the corporate world.
“It was this constant analysis and navigation of what I could say, what I could not say, what I could do, what I could not do,” she recalls.
Many workers will understand Lucy’s anxiety. If you think about it, a lot of what we do at work carries some risk. What happens if someone dislikes an aspect of your personality? What is the line between being friendly and being a nuisance? How much of yourself can you safely ‘let go’ at work?
As it turns out, the way teams allow people to ‘be themselves’ at work has important implications. Recent research suggests that work environments where people feel able to take interpersonal risks not only perform better, but are also more creative and more likely to solve problems effectively.
This feature, called ‘psychological safety’, has many upsides. More than that, it is changing the workplace in surprising ways.