In recent years, the concept of psychological safety has received significant attention in organizational and managerial topics. Managers are encouraged to create a work environment where it is safe to challenge each other and disagree. It should be psychologically safe to risk someone's opinion differing from the rest of the college. I myself have been involved in promoting psychological safety as an essential feature of a good speech climate.
Now I'm starting to wonder if all this talk about psychological safety is underestimating the power of psychological distress and uncertainty. People often make their best efforts in situations where they rush into something, without having the opportunity to see if it will go well. Doubt prevails in the inner half of the pitch. It is completely uncertain whether this message will be well received, whether this is a good idea or whether you will succeed with this gambit. This effort is risky and may end with a stomach ache. The safest thing to do is to stay in the background, cancel, and not enter the stage at all. Then you jump into it anyway, with a deep feeling of discomfort in your body.
Jazz and butterflies in the stomach
What got me on this path of thought was the interview Philippe Rochau conducted with legendary drummer Hamid Drake in the latest issue of Gazette (1/24). The 68-year-old jazz giant is invited to the biggest stages of free jazz and collaborates with the best musicians in the world. However, he admits that tension comes when he has to play in front of an audience: “Musicians don't like to talk about it, and jazz musicians like to say, 'I'm totally great before I play,' but it's something that happens inside us.”
Drake calls it butterflies in the stomach. In the past, he didn't like announcing their arrival, but today he gets worried when they miss the party. Then he thinks, “Hamid, your head has become too big.” To be a committed, creative musician who performs at his best, he must know and accept this inner turmoil. He is a vulnerable and fallible being who can create magical musical moments with others. He takes chances, even if he's not sure if it will work out.
The butterfly metaphor used by Drake is reminiscent of Paul Moxnes' concept of health anxiety. We like to associate anxiety with illness and paralysis. Anxiety can overwhelm us and create a lack of freedom. Moxnes believes that there is another form of anxiety, which is positive anxiety that mobilizes people's ability to perform in difficult situations. When he's gone, we step back and think about things other than finishing the season at the same high level. In sports, we can see this in athletes who lead the race and start waving to the crowd triumphantly. Then a focused competitor passes them before the finish line and snatches first place.
The power of psychological disorders and insecurity
Drummer Drake talks about embracing insecurity and turmoil. “We have to keep ourselves open to everything that happens to us inside. It is freedom. If we try to hide it, or do not accept it – it is captivating.”
Amy Edmondson and others who have researched the concept of psychological security have been careful to say that it should not be confused with comfort and warmth. When we are psychologically safe, we dare to throw ourselves into heated discussions, because we know that people here are respectful and care about each other. No one will take revenge after that. But if so, it is not really dangerous to get involved, which undermines the definition that psychological safety consists precisely of the fact that we can take risky actions without fear of negative consequences. In fact, we often engage under the guise of uncertainty. We can't be sure this will end well.
In very different ways, Hamed Drake and Paul Moxness remind us of the power of psychological distress and insecurity. It can be an absolutely crucial foundation for excellent performance. The heart beats faster. Sweat forms on the back of the hands. There is no guarantee that this will be well received. However, we get on stage, look at the audience and begin.
The text was first published in Dagens Næringsliv: https://www.dn.no/ledelse/ledelse/dn-ledelse/oyvind-kvalnes/trenger-vi-psychologisk-trygghet/2-1-1581886
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