Psychological Safety

This evening Rachelle and I attended an orientation meeting for a local kink-related meetup group. It’s a very active group that does frequent educational workshops as well as social meetups. I’ve known about them for years and was curious, but I never went to one of their meetup, mainly because there was a (relatively minor) prerequisite that seemed just annoying enough to dissuade me from going and keep the idea perpetually on the back burner.

In order to attend any meetings from this group, they require that everyone has to attend a 90-minute orientation meeting in person before they can attend anything else. If you don’t attend the orientation, they won’t even give you the address for their events.

Sitting through a 90-minute orientation sounded pretty dry to me, and it was about a 40-minute round trip drive to the location, so I always put it off. I figured it would most likely go over some basic aspects of kink that I was already familiar with and that it would be boring to sit through lecture style. My only motivation for enduring it would be to get access to the hopefully more interesting meetings of the group.

Sometimes these orientation meetings would be offered when I was traveling, or they’d be many weeks away when I checked, or I’d just forget about the group for several months. Sometimes I’d add the orientation meeting to my calendar just in case I felt like going when it came up, but then I always talked myself out of it.

I could at least see the topics and descriptions of their meetings without having to go through orientation. There’s a relatively small subset of kink that interests me, which I’ve blogged about in the past, but this group has way more variety than my narrow range of interests. I might be interested in maybe 5% of what they cover, probably not more than 10%.

This year (and really starting this month), I decided to lean towards more expansion of my in-person social life, so last week I decided to check again when the next orientation meeting for this group was coming up. I saw that it was only a few days away, which turned out to be this evening. Finally the stars aligned, and this time I decided to actually go. Rachelle agreed to come along and check it out as well. I’d say we were both a bit skeptical about what it would be like, but we did our best to go in with as much open-mindedness as we could muster.

I was pleasantly surprised. The orientation wasn’t about orienting to basic etiquette related to a kink-based lifestyle that I’d heard many times before. It was actually about the specific standards of the group and their internal code of conduct.

This is a very active group with hundreds of members, and they’re very protective about the culture inside and creating psychological safety for those involved. So the orientation mainly focused on clarifying and setting expectations for what it’s like. It was largely a rundown of what’s considered acceptable versus unacceptable behavior inside the group. All of the standards made sense when viewed through the lens of psychological safety.

For example, we could share about the group itself, what topics it covers, and the personal aspects of our experiences because that isn’t going to threaten anyone’s psychological safety. But we absolutely cannot “out” anyone who’s involved because that could cause significant problems for people, such as a job loss or being harshly rejected by family.

What I found especially interesting is how the group has tiers of access. The group is free, so these aren’t financial tiers but rather trust tiers. The most basic level of access is granted after completing the orientation, so Rachelle and I have now progressed to that level. At the end of the orientation, we were given the address for the meetups and can freely attend whichever ones interest us. The next level is granted after attending three meetups.

I rather liked learning that the group has a code of conduct meant to prevent problems, create psychological safety, and minimize drama. It seems clear that they’re seeking members who will align with the group, and they want to catch misalignments early and then restrict or limit access based on the severity of the misalignment. They have rules in place to prevent, catch, and handle threats to the psychological safety of the members.

I’ve been public about this part of my life for at least a decade, so the social consequences and judgments aren’t an issue for me like they might be for some people. I don’t need as much protection or as many rules to feel psychologically safe. I’ve had time to get used to feeling safe and supported even when sharing rather personal aspects of my life publicly.

However, I still benefit when the people around me feel psychologically safe. If they feel safe, they’re more willing to open up, share, and connect, and that means less work for me socially. So even if I don’t think I need as much psychological safety for myself, I really like this standard when I see it because I benefit from easier social flow.

I’ve also seen how a lack of psychological safety can negatively impact groups if they don’t create enough of it.

In a mastermind group I was involved in a while back, there wasn’t a very high standard of psychological safety. Members teased each other a lot. New members weren’t onboarded particularly well. The social expectations of the group were fuzzy. During the meetings many members were on their phones, laptops, and tablets constantly, not even giving the current speaker their full attention. Various misalignments, some of which might have seemed minor on their own, added to a feeling that something was off with the group. The feeling of connection was weaker than it could have been. It feel like investing in this group would be a lot more work socially than in other groups with higher standards.

With a different online group that I got involved in this year, the psychological safety is very high, and it shows. There was more clarification about the standards and expectations, and members were screened for alignment before they could join. I’ve been impressed with the level of intimacy and sharing in this group.

Psychological safety isn’t a crisp and clear standard. It’s subjective of course. We could say that it’s whatever people feel it is. It’s also a spectrum, not a binary switch between safe and unsafe. But there are still ways to create it more consistently, such as by identifying what people would perceive as a threat and then seeking to prevent or remove those threats.

It’s also possible to take this standard too far. This happens when people feel stunted in being able to express what they’d really like to say, out of concern that they may (even accidentally) make someone else feel unsafe or violate some rule they perceive as overly strict.

I think that a relatively healthy standard is to allow for some errors on both sides. This means that some of the more sensitive people will feel uncomfortable; they’ll feel that it’s a bit too much of a stretch to open up, share, and trust. For instance, some people may still not feel that they can trust the kink group even with the rules and expectations defined pretty well. They may be so concerned about the risk of accidentally being outed that they won’t join or show up.

And on the other extreme, some people won’t feel good about being in the group because they’ll find the rules too stifling. They’ll find the rules too oppressive, and they won’t like being burdened with following the rules, especially if they don’t require as much to feel safe.

I think it’s a healthy sign when people are opting out of a group or declining to participate at both of these extremes. This indicates that the group’s center of mass is probably being satisfied well enough.

Consider the alternative of trying to eliminate dissatisfaction with the standards on one side or the other. You’ll end up chasing after fewer and fewer people as you move further from the center, which can cause some dissatisfaction in the center as well. More people will start feeling the rules are either too tight or too loose for them.

This balancing act is one that I keep working on in Conscious Growth Club. We have a nice culture of sharing and trust that I want to preserve and improve on the inside. But to get this right and satisfy the majority of members, I expect to see some resistance at both extremes. Some people will leave because they feel the rules and culture are too tight and too protective. And some will leave because they feel the rules are too loose and not protective enough. That’s to be expected. What I aim to preserve is the core of the group who feel the rules are pretty well aligned to give them sufficient psychological safety to connect, share, trust, and to derive solid benefits from participating. If we chase the extremes to create more satisfaction at the edges, the bigger risk is losing the center of mass.

While I don’t know what the kink group is like on the inside – time will tell – I appreciate that they’ve put a lot of thought into creating psychological safety. Even if they don’t calibrate perfectly well for my tastes, just making the effort to address psychological safety tends to do a lot of good, creating stronger social flow inside. It’s not something that will ever be perfect, but an imperfect implementation is generally way better than none at all.

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Read Psychological Safety by Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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