NeuroSafety: When Familiarity Fuels Fear for Women in Workplaces

Mar 08, 2024

On International Women’s Day this year, I want to share a bit about the challenge with creating safe cultures where people can thrive, particularly for women. 

Businesses started with most roles being primarily held by men. In large part, women are still a minority in many rooms especially those of leadership.

Why is this still the case today? 

While there are many reasons, one important reason relates to interactions and experiences we have in the workplace. Women are frequently operating in cultures and situations that don’t listen to or take into consideration their unique experiences and perspectives. 

This makes creating safe cultures that foster performance, engagement and well-being for women extremely difficult. This week a friend of mine shared this insight: 

If we don’t know what safety looks and feels like, then creating it for ourselves and others is difficult. 

And I would add, it makes a psychologically safe culture impossible!

Let's look at my story as an example...

I once spoke up and shared what I considered to be an ethical and moral issue in a room filled with men. I was the only one in the room with personal experience of the perspective I was sharing. 

The reaction of most of the men was to immediately deny my reality. 

If what I was sharing was true, it challenged their perspective, experience, and view of the world. It challenged their ways of being, thinking, feeling, and behaving. 

Their ways of being were comfortable and being asked to consider another possibility felt totally unreasonable. Many of their reactions were emotional - frustration, anger, disbelief, denial, and offense. 

All those emotions, and the hostility manifested by them, were directed at me. It wasn’t just their verbal expression (although they certainly did), it was the physical response in their bodies. 

Their energy, dominance, tone of voice, movement, and unconscious messaging that I was deep in shark-infested waters.

Intentional or not, I felt attacked, isolated, and dismissed. My emotions activated making me defensive and reactive. I clung, as much as I was able, to some semblance of composure. 

I no longer remember all the details of the conversation. But I do remember the break afterwards.

They all went outside the building and continued talking. Whether it was about what just occurred or not, it only left me feeling more alone, different, rejected, unseen, unheard, and disrespected. 

Meanwhile, I walked into a private space and called a mentor as the emotions I’d tried to quell came rushing to the surface. The tears fell uncontrollably, my body shook, my heart pounded, and I desperately wanted to run away and leave. 

My body and nervous system were in full fight/flight mode. 

But the meeting wasn’t over; and I couldn’t just leave. 

Or at least back then, I didn’t think I could. I thought I had to go back in, compose myself, and tough it out. 

With the validation and empathy from my mentor, I regained my composure and went back into the room to finish the day. 

As I sat there suffering in silence, I held it together. But underneath I was completely undone. 

My sense of safety and security wasn’t just gone, it was shattered. 

It wasn’t the conflict or difference of opinions that destroyed my sense of safety. I can handle conflict (in fact, healthy conflict, discourse, and debate is one of my joys in life). 

It was the dysregulated reactions, hostility, denial, and lack of any interest or desire to even consider what I shared might be worth their consideration that destroyed my sense of safety.

I’m not sure anything after that experience would have allowed me to feel safe again to express my authentic experience and perspective. Certainly not without a change in their level of awareness and willingness to expand to see beyond their current reality. 

What I didn't know then, but know now…

I didn’t know this then, but what happened in that room was the direct result of human neurophysiology. Each of us in the room developed throughout our lives our own unique neural patterns and ways of being (thinking, feeling, behaving) based on our experiences. 

As a company and team, we’d also developed specific patterns and ways of being over the history of the organization. 

All day long, our intelligences are scanning, interpreting, and evaluating our environments and experiences.

When something aligns with our patterns or ways of being, we don’t have to change or expand our understanding and it reinforces our patterns. 

But when something contradicts or doesn’t fit with our patterns and ways of being (individually or collectively), our brains have a decision to make.

  1. Step One: Since our brains are wired to conserve energy for survival, not changing is easier (less energy) than having to accept this new experience or perspective. Therefore, the easiest reaction is rejection and dismissal.
  2. Step Two: If they have self-awareness or a relationship of trust, they might not be able to reject it immediately. Instead, we start to run it against our patterns looking at how we can make sense of the disconnect or justify a decision to discount it. We might say things like: 
You’re wrong because I’m a good person. 
Not everyone agrees. One opinion isn’t enough to consider.
I never meant to do it, so it can’t be true. 
There’s nothing we can do, so why even talk or think about it? 
You’re just trying to cause drama or stir the pot. 

What played out in that room and has every day in rooms all over the world, is a neurophysiological response. 

Without intentional effort to reflect on and evolve our ways of being, we remain stuck in these cycles, patterns, and ways of being (thinking, feeling, & behaving).

How did this happen?

Individually, our experiences shaped our ways of being and over time, we came together and established ways of being for our group or organization. This makes the experience of a minority group be easily dismissed and the absence of a group entirely be ignored. 

Which means the majority experience sets the standard for safety. What seems and feels safe to them, is all that matters. 

But for many, safety may not be something they’ve ever truly experienced. If growing up, we lived in unsafe spaces - environments that could not hold space for us to share our emotions - we may not know safety. 

Safety occurs when we are seen and accepted for who we are and how we feel. 

Therefore, we may then mistake familiarity for safety. What we think safety feels like may actually just be what’s familiar. 

A work culture with a long history of certain ways of being cultivated over time creates a sense of familiarity from the continuity. Even if that sense of familiarity exists for only part of its constituents or jeopardizes the safety of others.

At that time, I didn’t really know what safety felt like. But I could certainly identify what it didn’t feel like, and that room wasn’t safe for me in that moment. 

How do we create safety?

To create the safety required to build trust, improve performance, and support we--being requires unwinding and separating what’s familiar from what’s safe. 

Doing things the way they’ve been done feels so familiar it can seem like safety or a safer option when actually it’s the opposite. 

In fact, sometimes doing nothing is riskier than trying something new. Sticking with the same practices, creating your current results (even with incremental changes), can still perpetuate and fuel people’s fears. 

Familiar feels safer even when it fuels fear.
  • It might feel familiar to keep doing performance reviews while it’s actually fueling fears of not good enough, failure, unworthiness, and inadequacy. 
  • Keeping your current culture might feel familiar while it’s actually fueling fears in others of not belonging, being excluded, or rejection.
  • Traditionally managing people might feel familiar while it’s actually fueling fear of not mattering, betrayal, and being misunderstood.
  • Mandating a return to office might feel familiar while sending a message of people can’t be trusted, must be monitored, and can’t make their own decisions. 

Taking Action

The only way for leaders to create safe cultures physically and psychologically for ALL the people in them is to:

  1. Understand and experience true safety and the difference from familiarity.
  2. Discover their own patterns and ways of being that perpetuate a lack of safety for others.
  3. Recognize when their patterns and ways of being are reacting in a way that might jeopardize the safety of others.
  4. Choose to embrace the new, listening to and acknowledging others' experiences and perspectives. 
  5. Choose to establish new cultural ways of working and being with workplace practices that not only create safety but also leads to...

Improved Performance, Engagement, & Well-Being!

Expanding Capacity, Capabilities, and Competence!

Wiser Problem Solving & Decision-Making!

Increased Trust, Better Relationships & Less Conflict!

All we need to do is better understand the way we operate as human (our neurophysiology) and apply this to our ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, being, and ultimately working! 

If the workplace isn't safe for everyone then it isn't truly safe for anyone! 

My journey from that room to where I am today has been long and I'm grateful for everything I've learned along the way. We can choose a new a better way for ourselves and our workplaces...let's start today! Happy Women's Day!

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