In 2016, I reflected on a few distinct failures of my journalism career, and promptly went into my manager’s office, declaring I was a complete failure. I had written an essay applying for a leadership academy for women in media, but the result seemed like a list of my failings.
You’re not a failure, he said immediately. Then he pointed to every success we’d had as a team and newsroom that was prompted by one of my failures. After my dramatics, we took up our usual Thursday afternoon conversation. We discussed my future and our work. During this protected, weekly, hourlong one-on-one, we leaned into problems we didn’t have answers to and questioned our ideas and content strategy.
I didn’t know this was psychological safety until the pandemic, when news teams were falling apart because they are made of humans, not robots, who were dealing with enormous stresses at work and home. Psychological safety was making me an effective and capable leader, and it was shoring up my well-being for the news cycle storms to come. This week’s mental health reset asks you to interrogate how your contributions create a psychologically safe workplace.
P.S. We’re at the end of our Mental Health Reset series, but the work doesn’t stop here. That’s why API put together a mental health resource guide that offers support for journalists, including stories from peers and ways managers can help. We hope this evolving resource will give you actionable, specific tools to aid your work while serving as a reminder that you’re not alone in tackling these industry-specific challenges.
For managers, consistently holding space is an important part of contributing to a psychologically safe workplace. We often connect space with time, but they’re different. Spending time at meetings half-present, with DMs still open and emails still a priority, will do more harm than good. Conversely, space is where well-being is nurtured. Sharing an attentive 15 minutes with someone — listening, inquiring and coaching — will compound the good.
Consider your 1:1 meetings. Are they transactional or transformational? Do you pay attention, listen and loop? How often do you cancel and who sets the agenda? How much do you talk day-to-day versus the big picture? Do you blue-sky ideas? How do you celebrate opportunities and experimentation? How often do you model process, learning and evolution?
The idea of psychological safety starts with us, the leaders. Consistency in modeling — whether you think people are watching or not — is key, especially as we navigate the hazards of our work and the cycle of chronic stress to burnout.
However, our egos are a considerable adjacent challenge to creating psychological safety. Undoubtedly, the idea of being a leader, or “role model,” needs to be flipped. Instead of serving as the example of the one who has arrived, we are “examples of the work in progress, high on self-belief but low on perfect answers,” McKinsey & Company noted in its 2021 report on psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development.
Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, a scholar at Harvard Business School, first introduced the concept of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Using Google’s data-driven re:Work research as our guide, consider your relationship with work and the people you work with and for. Using the downloadable worksheet, assess where you fall across the five dynamics of effective teams. Then, take some quiet time to reflect on why you’ve rated each dynamic as you have.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Google’s five dynamics of effective teams: How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements? For each, I’ve left you some thought starters to fill in with details, examples and data to unpack why you rated each dynamic the way you did.
- Psychological safety: I feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of my team, including my direct manager.
- Score: (1- strongly disagree, 5 – strongly agree)
- Explore: The last time I was vulnerable in front of my team or manager was… The last time I took a risk was… My recent response to a team member’s vulnerability or risk-taking was… My team best shows up for me when…
- Dependability: I get things done on time and meet [our team’s bar] for excellence.
- Explore: An example of how I work well under pressure is when… I communicate when I’m at capacity in the following ways… The last time I took responsibility for my actions or inactions was… Recalling my mistakes comes easily or is difficult because…
- Structure and clarity: I have clear roles, plans and goals.
- Explore: My current role on paper is aligned, or misaligned, with my day-to-day in the following ways… The value of my role is seen across my news organization by… The goals I am working toward include… My role and goals are most unclear when…
- Meaning: Work is personally important to me.
- Explore: I would describe my journalistic philosophy as… The thing that gets me out of bed for work is… I would define the purpose of my work as… My role and work best fit into the larger mission of my organization when…
- Impact: I think my work matters and creates change.
- Explore: One ripple of change I created through my role, on my team is… One way I’m leaving a legacy (or want to begin to) in the news industry is… I would define the impact of my work as…
TAKE IT FURTHER
Take this challenge one step forward by scheduling a meeting with your direct manager, an ally or a sponsor in your news organization to share what you’ve learned. Consult this guide on what psychological safety looks like “in the room” by organizational anthropologist Timothy R. Clark before your meeting.
???? API’S MENTAL HEALTH GUIDE
Bookmark API’s mental health guide for journalists and consider some of these resources for news leaders: