Psychological Safety

1 Dec 2021

You have to be very intentional when you are trying to create an environment of psychological safety for people. This is not one of those things "that just happen", you have to go out of your way. It is not a natural state to find one's self in. After all, we are biologically attuned to address environmental threats. And the workplace can exhibit signs of competition, one-upmanship, intentional withholding, and even outright hostility.

If I am being honest, I don't know that I have ever experienced a fully realized sense of psychological safety at a job. From time to time, from moment to moment, and from one coworker to another there is definitely a sense of safety. Each different meeting, team, and random grouping of folks does require recalibrating that sense of safety, and if I'm not careful I can find myself in an awkward conversation without any feeling of safety.

A dozen years ago myself and two acquaintances decided to start a gym, mostly for ourselves and we figured there have got to be others out there that would be interested! Specifically a powerlifting and olympic weightlifting gym because those activities are "frowned upon" in typical gyms. (Mind you this was before, or just as, the Crossfit explosion was happening).

The first wave of people who showed up were truly random strangers. But they were there because they knew exactly what they were looking for and what they were doing. Soon enough the next wave of people who showed up were "interested" and had no clue what they were doing. We knew that if we wanted the gym to succeed we had to make these people feel welcome to the space, accepted by everyone else there, and most importantly safe.

It is no small thing to get under a bar with enough weight on it you truly don't know if you can lift it. For many, many people that is very unnerving and terrifying. Having people feel welcome in the space became second nature to us. We were very lucky to have the first folks that consistently returned because they truly accepted whoever walked in the door. People started chatting and helping one another load and unload weights and swap stations. Naturally folks came and went, but a core group helped us run the gym. Truth be told the weightlifting community (not "people who randomly go to a gym a few times a month") is an amazing community. And that larger community welcomed our small gym into it.

Creating the psychological safety for people to do something they've never really tried before, especially lifting barbells, took a lot of work. Over time we established a bit of a protocol that we would work through, and, when the time came, asked other long-time members to help us in instructing new members having them use the protocol. This is roughly what it looked like:

  1. Learn what they are interested in doing here. There is no point in trying to instruct them on how to do something they don't want to do!
  2. Learn if there are any injuries or bodily limitations they have. We have specific equipment and routines to address many common ailments.
  3. Demonstrate the movements and lifts they are interested to them. Point out specific crucial elements that will make them successful.
  4. Ask them to demonstrate the movements with just the bar and point out adjustments in real time. Tell them: "You see them over there, lifting all that weight, they started with just this bar too. I started with just the bar. Everyone starts with just the bar."
  5. Demonstrate how to safely dump the weight in case of a failed lift. This is how you avoid hurting yourself when you are near your limits.
  6. Tell them they can always ask anyone in the gym to spot them.

By the time they've been in the gym for 30 minutes they have seen many folks spotting one another. They know they can ask because others have demonstrated its safe to ask. They have seen a person squatting 315#+ spot someone with 135# on the bar. It doesn't matter how strong you are or how long you've been here—you help spot people.

If we extrapolate a little bit we can generalize how we found success in creating a safe space:

  1. Understand where people are coming from
  2. Understand where people need assistance
  3. Set expectations, or "How to succeed"
  4. Real time feedback
  5. Making it clear that failure is allowed, and this is how we make sure nothing gets broken. If someone gets hurt because they don't know what they are doing it is our fault.
  6. We expect you to ask for help when you need it

This is how we found success. We started in a dingy shared warehouse space and we kept expanding. Next we moved into an old maintenance garage that nearly doubled our space. People kept coming. On the packed evenings you could barely find enough space to stand out of the way while other people were lifting. We moved one final time to an even bigger space, a proper storefront, with actual parking!

As of six years ago I no longer help run the gym, as life was getting busier and busier. It is a phase of my life that I am very proud of. The gym is still going strong to this day which gives me so much joy.