As a Principal, I Thought I Promoted Psychological Safety. Then a Colleague Spoke Up.

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A few months ago, an assistant principal at my school gave me feedback I wasn’t prepared for. This colleague, who I manage, shared that during a recent meeting I had facilitated, my tone made them feel psychologically unsafe. Their words, and the description of their experience in the meeting left me stunned, confused and disappointed in myself. I kept thinking, “Me? I made someone feel psychologically unsafe? But how?”

As a principal, my job is to ensure the physical and psychological safety of every staff member and student in my care — and that includes our leadership team, which is made up of 10 assistant principals who coach and manage teachers. For me, this responsibility goes beyond a job description. The safety of my school community, which I love, is deeply embedded in my purpose. It’s actually one of the reasons I took the job — I believed I could create the precise conditions for everyone to feel safe.

But, I didn’t — at least not on that day. And when this colleague bravely spoke up, it helped rethink how I approached keeping my people safe beyond physicality.

When I thought back to the meeting my colleague described, I remembered how hard that day was and I must admit, I did not lead that meeting with my usual warmth. I had a lot on my mind and in retrospect, I was really on edge. Earlier that day, I received an email from our district informing me that my school had the lowest completion average on our beginning of year reading exam. Wrestling with my own feelings around being “last place,” I was a bit confused and wanted immediate clarity, which I thought this colleague could provide since she had a plan to administer further assessments to gauge what was going on. At the same time, a teacher in this colleague’s department had unexpectedly quit leaving a mid-year staffing challenge that needed an immediate solution. I was overwhelmed, so I asked a lot of questions in rapid-fire succession, and in my quest for answers, I disregarded my colleague’s need to feel supported due to my own internalized pressure to perform.

When she opened up to share with me about how that meeting felt, I learned that she left our meeting feeling interrogated, disempowered and iced out. Instead of direct and efficient, she read me as cold and curt. In turn, she closed off to protect her own sense of well-being. Unbeknownst to me, I had created a wall that only I could tear down. One of my teammates was harmed and as her leader, it was my job to fix it.

What should I do? How do I recover? How do I rebuild trust within myself, with this person, and with my team? As I reflected on our encounter, these questions played on loop in my brain like a ribbon display screen at the Barclays.

To start, I had to pull myself together. I felt awful knowing I made someone feel uncomfortable or less-than. I was not in a good place. I had lost confidence, was starting to question my fit for the job and began creating narratives about how I was perceived as a leader: He’s such a fake. He’s not really about equity work, look at the culture he’s created. I was starting to believe these things.

What allowed me to re-center was a tidbit I learned during my days as a recruiter: There is no such thing as the perfect candidate. In this case, there was no such thing as the perfect leader or the perfect team. This meant that my imperfections and missteps were actually opportunities for me and my team to get stronger. But the stakes were high and I did not have the luxury of time.

Why It’s Critical to Create Conditions for Psychological Safety in Schools

I first learned about the concept of psychological safety during the height of the pandemic. I was a teacher at that time and we had moved to remote instruction. During a training session, a social worker used the term, which prompted me to learn more.

As I started to unpack this concept further, I learned that true psychological safety exists when the conditions within an organization allow for interpersonal risk-taking. In an environment like this, team members normalize error, have open communication and welcome healthy debate and discourse. This sense of safety can also contribute to a culture of freedom and autonomy, which can motivate individuals and teams to do their absolute best and ultimately, lead to commitment. That’s key in our school because as we expand to serve more students across our community, we need to think of innovative ways to retain teachers as we scale, literally, to new heights.

I understood the concept, so, what was standing in the way?

In my case, I was so worried about the challenges in front of me that I didn’t consider the needs of my colleague, who was experiencing those challenges right alongside me. I didn’t think about the hard work she had put into getting 70 percent of our student body tested in one day, or how the teacher’s departure affected her and her team. And I hadn’t considered how power dynamics related to role, race and gender played a role in the interaction I had with my teammate. I wish I had.

As I dove into the literature on what leaders can do to provide psychological safety in the workplace, I learned that a key component is to recognize and account for the wide range of life experiences and perspectives in a group. That helped me understand that I need to be much more intentional about how I occupy space with my team and how we occupy space together.

Making a Plan to Repair the Harm

There are plenty of resources that provide guidance for a team member or leader whose psychological safety has been compromised in the workplace. Yet few provide guidance for leaders like me, who have an opportunity to rebound after a breach of psychological safety has occurred, before irreparable damage is done. So I leaned on a formula I use when solving any challenge: collect the data, distill the trends, and make a plan of action and accountability.

To gather data, I began meeting with my team more frequently, particularly with the assistant principals I manage. This meant holding sacred space for each of them weekly and cultivating an environment where each felt seen, heard and valued consistently. When we met, I simplified their deliverables so I could spend more time listening to what they were going through.

Listening to my colleagues actively and mindfully has allowed me to gain greater perception, information and insight into their mindsets, while also developing a heightened sense of empathy and belonging. These one-on-one conversations have been invaluable to my understanding of the individuals I manage, allowing me to see their humanity and to learn so much more about myself, my leadership and my own blind spots.

Interestingly, the inspiration for this essay came from a recent one-on-one with the assistant principal I unintentionally harmed. When she gave me permission to share this story, she also offered candid insight into her experience with me and as she opened up, I felt the wall I allowed to be built between us falling. In its place, we were rebuilding a connection.

In an effort to build these connections across our team and to foster a safe, caring environment , I created more space to connect, discuss and problem-solve individual challenges collaboratively, and that became the core part of my plan of action. To develop a pathway toward reestablishing psychological safety on my team, I drew upon the “First Team” concept — developed by Patrick Lencioni, a business management and organizational health expert and author — which prioritizes an inclusive, all-hands-on-deck approach to problem-solving. This framework prioritizes collective, rather than siloed, decision-making and that’s made a big difference for our team.

Creating more space for pressure-free individual check-ins, and putting more of an emphasis on solving problems and making decisions as a team, have helped me mitigate feelings of isolation and disempowerment across the team. In turn, I have seen deeper collaboration and greater knowledge sharing across departments and people.

Hearing that I’d caused my colleague to feel psychologically unsafe was a deeply uncomfortable and difficult experience, but I am so grateful for it because it illuminated a critical misstep, sharpened my equity lens and expanded my ability to keep my community safe. As a principal, I have the privilege to disrupt and interrupt patterns of inequality and inequity, even after perpetuating them. Creating and maintaining psychological safety on my team is not a destination, but a necessary journey I am committed to taking.

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