A number of years ago a person in a training class of mine shared a story. I am retelling it with her permission. Let’s call her Sue.

Sue had returned to work after taking a sabbatical under the Family Medical Leave Act.  During her first one-on-one with her boss, Sue’s boss asked, “How are you doing?”

Sounds like a supportive, psychologically safe workplace, doesn’t it?!  Well, let’s not be too hasty. Back to the story.

Sue answered her boss’s question. She shared her sadness and the difficulties that came with helping an ailing family member. She talked about how happy she was to be back at work.

Her boss said, “Just so you know, in the future when someone asks, ‘How are you doing?’ They aren’t really asking. They don’t really want to know.”

Is your mouth hanging open? My mouth was almost touching the ground when I heard Sue tell her story. In fact, I was shocked by the complete insensitivity of this boss. 

Sadly, this is not the only boss out there who is failing miserably at creating psychological safety in their workplaces. The saddest part is that leaders like this don’t even care. And when leaders don’t care, employees don’t do their best work. Or even worse, they leave.

When an employee is vulnerable that employee gives his, her, or their leader a beautiful opportunity to cultivate psychological safety.  When leaders are given moments like the one above they need to snatch them up and handle them in way that creates the space needed for employees to do their best work.

Had I been Sue’s boss, I would have said,

“We’re happy to have you back too. You’ve had a lot on your shoulders, and I want you to know I understand transitioning back to work might come with some ups and downs. What do you need from me and the team to help you?”

If someone comes to you in an exposed state, showing their soft white under belly so-to-speak, the first thing you can do is take a deep breath.  Then answer these questions:

“What is the outcome of this conversation I would like to see?”

What can I say that will promote psychological safety and how can I say it?”

What can I do that will promote psychological safety?”

“What does this employee need from me right now at this very moment?”

Asking and answering these questions before responding will help you to cultivate more psychological safety where you work.

Feel like you haven’t created an environment where employees are doing their best work? Reach out to me. I’d be happy to talk about how I can help you create more psychological safety.