Is It Expensive To Be Yourself? How This Golden Question Reveals Psychological Safety

May 19, 2023

What is the single most important question you can ask to reveal the level of psychological safety on a team?

Answer: “Is it expensive to be yourself?”

I call this the golden question. Let me give you three recent examples where I used it: Not long ago we said goodbye to a wonderful woman from Brazil who worked as an intern for our company. She had previously worked for a large company in São Paulo. On her first day, I asked her the golden question: “When you were working for that organization, was it expensive to be yourself?”

No one had ever asked her the golden question, but she knew immediately what I meant.

“Yes,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to say anything.”

I had a similar conversation with an executive from a large technology company who had been part of a leadership team that was breaking up. I asked the golden question, “Was it expensive to be yourself.” Even on Zoom I could see his eyes roll. “My job,” he said, “was to take orders and execute. They didn’t want my opinion.”

“But you’re an executive,” I protested.

“I know,” he said. “And now that the old guard is gone, I can finally breathe. I can finally be myself. I can finally weigh in.”

“But how did you survive under that regime for three years?” I asked.

“I had to be someone else,” he said.

Now a third example: I was talking to a woman who was just promoted to management at a financial services company. I asked her the golden question.

“Wow,” she said. “I’d have to say no. My boss is tough. Super high expectations. But he lets me be me. He respects me and listens. He’s a validating human being and he holds me accountable.”

The golden question is powerful because it cuts to the heart of culture which is psychological safety—a culture of rewarded vulnerability.

We All Do Threat Detection and Then Play Offense Or Defense

When human beings interact in social settings, they subconsciously engage in threat detection. We observe, monitor, and gauge group dynamics—not just once, but continuously. What are we looking for?

We’re trying to figure out if we can be ourselves, if the environment is psychologically safe. Psychological safety means it’s not expensive to be yourself—not socially, emotionally, politically, or economically.

Specifically, psychological safety means you feel four things:

  1. Included
  2. Safe to learn
  3. Safe to contribute
  4. Safe to challenge the status quo

All without fear that you will be embarrassed or marginalized, that you will jeopardize your personal standing or reputation, that you will be subject to ridicule or retaliation.

As adaptable creatures, we have two modes of performance—offense and defense. If we sense that the setting is safe, we play offense. We offer a performance response and bring our A game. We play to win. We release discretionary effort and go headlong into what we’re doing. Without reservation, we contribute our skills, knowledge, and experience. We want to make a difference.

On the other hand, if we sense that the setting is unsafe, we shift to defense. We offer a survival response. We’re not playing to win; we’re playing not to lose. We know instinctively that our first priority is to manage personal risk, so we toggle to a mindset of self-preservation and loss avoidance. We reduce vulnerability and use our creative and productive capacities to protect ourselves. We say less, do less, and try less. We ask fewer questions, make fewer suggestions, and make fewer attempts to avoid fewer mistakes.

Triggering the Self-Censoring Instinct

Threat detection is hardwired. You can’t change the behavior in yourself or others, nor should you want to. We all have a self-censoring instinct. It's standard equipment. When we sense danger in the environment, it triggers that self-censoring instinct and an adaptive response. We retreat.

Even healthy environments with high psychological safety can change in an instant if there’s a violation of respect or an act of incivility.

Here’s a self-assessment that includes 12 common breaches of psychological safety that routinely occur in organizations. Read the 12 questions and ask yourself if you have experienced any of these breaches in the last 24 hours.

  1. Have you felt excluded in a social setting?
  2. Have you been afraid to ask a question?
  3. Have you remained silent when you knew the answer to a problem?
  4. Have you had someone else steal credit for something you did?
  5. Have you given a suggestion that was ignored?
  6. Have you been rudely interrupted in a meeting?
  7. Have you felt that you were the target of a negative stereotype?
  8. Have you faced retaliation for challenging the status quo?
  9. Have you had a boss who asked for feedback but didn’t really want it?
  10. Have you been publicly shamed or made fun of?
  11. Have you been punished for making an honest mistake?
  12. Have you been made to feel inferior?

Is there a human being that hasn’t experienced at least one of these breaches of psychological safety? Unfortunately not, but the more important point is the frequency with which they occur. These acts of incivility are far too common. They happen every day. In the survey research my team has done, we have discovered that fully 60 percent of employees can say yes to one of these questions every 24 hours.

That finding is not just explanatory; it’s also predictive. In other words, we can predict with a high degree of certainty that you will experience some kind of microaggression or adverse interpersonal event that will activate your self-censoring instinct and thrust you into a defensive mode of performance in the next 24 hours.

No wonder most teams don’t perform at capacity. No wonder so many employees feel disengaged. No wonder we often feel that it’s expensive to be ourselves!

Ask the Golden Question and Then Listen

Every team registers a different level of psychological safety. Clearly, the behavior of the leader has the most profound impact on that. When we ask leaders if they are aware of the way their behavior affects others, 90 percent say yes. But if we probe and ask them to explain how their behavior affects others, they often can’t offer a coherent response. How, then, do you shed layers of insulation to gain greater self-awareness?

Rather than spending hours in deep introspection, go talk to your people. Pull them aside one on one and ask them the golden question: “As a member of this team, is it expensive to be yourself?”

Even in the face of fear and positional power, most employees will answer that question honestly because it’s far safer to talk about your own experience than to criticize someone else, even it you are indirectly indicting the person asking it. And not least, you’re giving the individual a chance to be heard. It’s an act of interpersonal risk most people are willing to take. They want to talk about their experience and how they feel. As they answer the golden question, they will answer your question. Their response will be a mirror of your impact. Listen carefully. You might be amazed at what you learn.

If you want a deeper dive into the anatomy and stages of psychological safety, read Timothy R. Clark’s latest book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

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