“I was bullied by my manager for being gay!”

Being part of the LGBTQIA+ community, I know first-hand the unique pressures and challenges that being LGBTQIA+ in the workplace can bring. This is why I am now so dedicated to creating psychologically safe workplaces.

I started my career as a teacher. It wasn’t the traditional teaching career you might expect. I was 22 years old, 4ft 11 inches tall and working with dangerous criminals across West Yorkshire. As you may expect, my workplace was a hostile, aggressive and nerve-wracking environment, with hidden red panic buttons as well as visible ones on walls; they were placed strategically so we could easily access one from wherever we were in the room, in the eventuality that something kicked off. Which it did. Frequently!

I was teaching people who had been involved in offences related to drugs, alcohol, violence, theft, criminal damage and sexual offences. These crimes, stories and people committing them were part of my daily reality. From the first day, my protection, safety and wellbeing were taken very seriously by my employer. It had to be. I vividly remember this being tested to the limit at 6pm on a winter’s night back in 2004. On the walk back to my car after a busy day, I was followed by a very dangerous man. This led to me being stalked for 3 weeks. I wasn’t able to leave the office without a Probation Officer escorting me. From the moment I pulled up in the car park to begin my working day, at lunch, through to walking to my car at the end of the day. My employers created a work environment where I was physically, mentally and psychologically safe.

Two years later, I moved into teaching adults in the workplace for a college, and what a contrast that was! I didn’t feel safe bringing my ‘whole self’ to work. From the very first day in my new job I felt uncomfortable with my manager. She was a dictator. Controlling. Manipulative. She lied. She abused her power. She made people feel unworthy. I watched her bully members of the team out of their roles. When complaints were made against her, she always came out on top. I became her next target, where I experienced an intense period of bullying, daily harassment and intimidation for being gay. Initially, I didn’t report this as I didn’t want to ‘out’ myself to the leadership team and colleagues. So, I masked everything. I was hiding who I was and dreaded going to work every day. I became very poorly and unable to teach classes in the morning.

Over the next year I kept a log of incidents, alongside evidence, emails and communications and then reported this. But, to my shock, the woman involved was promoted and I was told to not progress the case any further because it would highlight my sexual orientation to colleagues. My health and confidence were at an all-time low and I didn’t have any fight left in me. I needed to walk away, from the role and the college. Naturally, this whole experience had a dramatic impact on my physical, mental and psychological health, which in turn affected my performance at work.

This experience is why I am now so dedicated to creating physically, mentally and psychologically safe workplaces. From first-hand experience, I know what it feels like to work in both a safe and unsafe work environment. And, I know what it takes to create safer, more inclusive workplaces for everyone.

There is legislation for physical and mental safety in the workplace, however when I found out that there is no legislation in place to promote and enhance psychological safety, I knew that this needed to change and as a change-leader and action-taker, I knew I was the one to lead it.

Many employees worldwide do not feel safe at work. A poll that I conducted on LinkedIn with over 300 employees from a variety of global firms and businesses highlighted that 75% of employees hide or censor elements of who they are and their abilities at work. This poll was targeted at all employees – not just those who may class themselves as having a protected characteristic. This means that three in four people you meet at work hide elements of who they are in order to feel safe. It is clear the issue is not limited to certain characteristics or backgrounds; the issue is a universal one.

Psychological safety underpins an inclusive culture. An open and inclusive workplace enables people to be themselves at work and perform at their best. In essence, when we create the culture where everyone can bring their whole self to work, we will unleash the full potential of everyone that works in the organisation.

Here are the five areas for consideration…

Being self-aware

Employees aren’t aware that there are certain things that adversely affect their performance and behaviour at work. This includes emotions, thoughts, social conditioning and expectations from others. It also includes people or situations that trigger negative emotions, thoughts and behaviours; past experiences that are impacting on situations in the present; not taking responsibility for behaviours, actions and how they impact on other people at work and a lack of personal boundaries. All of these things impact on health, relationships, teamwork, decisions at work, creativity and innovation.

If individuals are unable to manage negative emotions when they arise in situations or conversations at work, this can cause tension and conflict at work, but also impact on individuals’ home life too.

Emotions in the workplace are very rarely spoken about, and almost never are employees provided with training or strategies and tools to manage their emotions at work, or any of the other areas that have been proven to affect performance and behaviour at work. Once employees raise their awareness of what affects their performance and behaviour at work, they will be more in control of these things, and will be able to navigate situations and conversations more effectively.

The importance of communication

There are three fundamental areas around communication that could be the root cause of psychological safety issues at work. The first, not knowing how to communicate effectively with colleagues; making sure messages are communicated clearly and in the way they were intended to be received. The second, making sure messages are received from other people in the way they were intended. And lastly, knowing how to get the most out of exchanges of communication with colleagues; for example, knowing how to deal with conflict, miscommunications and misunderstandings.

Collaboration is essential

The previous two areas have been focused on the individual. When working with others, creating an environment where everyone can thrive, thereby creating high performing teams – is key. There are five areas where this can fall down. The first, is making sure everyone knows and understands how their individual objectives fit into the team’s goals and vision. The second, asking the question, “how can we create a safe space for everyone?” and listening to the responses. The third, is making sure everyone in the team is clear about the work that is needed to be done: individually and as a team. The fourth is team dynamics and exploring work preferences, personality types, expectations and delving into how to get the most out of individuals and the team and lastly, fifth is decision making. How do you keep moving things forward?

Embrace curiosity

This is another area that is vastly overlooked in organisations. Creating an environment for curiosity and reflective practice. Learning and development and experimentation are integral here. Without this, innovation is stifled. Yet, many organisations I have worked with don’t actively encourage employees to reflect on and learn from the work they are doing; individually, in teams or as an organization.

Get creative

Lastly, creating an environment for creativity and problem solving, on a regular basis is often lacking in organisations. Every employee is hired for their unique skills, expertise and background. Yet, by trying to fit in and be accepted by their peers, they stifle everything that made them stand out in the first place. By creating an environment of creativity, you encourage individuals to bring all their personal experience, skillset and expertise to the table – to problem solve and implement solutions. By addressing all 5 of these areas, you will unearth the root cause to your psychological safety issue within your organization, and address it at source.