The second supervision rule: foster psychological safety

This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, Director of Research Training, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

If the first rule in PhD supervision is treading softly, what is the second rule?
To me, it has to be about the quality of the relationship between student and supervisor.

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At its essence, a PhD is an apprenticeship: a student is working under the close supervision of an expert. Whether that relationship is one of benign neglect or regularly scheduled fortnightly meetings, the working environment needs to be one that fosters open and honest conversations. It needs to be a safe space where research theories and designs can be debated, challenges and mistakes disclosed, and there is honesty about the messiness of research.

There needs to be what Harvard Business School professor of leadership and management Dr Amy Edmonton labels ‘psychological safety’: “a shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” . A climate of psychological safety makes it easier for people to raise concerns and speak up with their tentative ideas or concerns. Put simply, psychological safety means there is a safe space and climate for expressing reservations, discussing concerns and admitting to mistakes. As a concept, Psychological safety is gaining significant traction and currency in the business world at the moment because it was identified by Google as the single most important factor in predicting team success. Critically, Edmonton emphases the importance of ‘voice’ (upward verbal communication) and cautions that once a norm of ‘not rocking the boat’ is established, it is very hard to go against that.

Of course, we could argue that fostering voice, open and critical debate is a common feature of academia. But, are we, as research supervisors, fostering a psychologically safe’ environment for our students?  Are we fostering and hearing their authentic voice?

I think it is important, for second, to reflect on the power differences that exist and whether our students feel comfortable enough to question us or share their concerns with us. How ‘psychologically safe’ do our research students really feel with us?  I know that I regularly talk with students who are worried or disappointed about some factor of their supervison, yet feel they cannot raise it directly with their supervisors – this could be relatively minor issues like communication style, meeting / feedback frequency, or much more major, such as concerns about the research direction, proposed data analysis, publication plans or the realisation that they do not want to do the proposed research anymore. These students do not feel ‘psychologically safe’, -and their inability to openly communicate significantly impedes their thesis progress.

Of course,  managing the student-supervisor relationship can be challenging, but I would argue that fostering a collaborative, supportive and ‘psychologically safe’ environment is the second most important thing to do as a supervisor. What do you think?

Is psychological safety important to you and how do you foster it in research supervision? Looking back, what was the intellectual and ‘psychological climate’ like when you were a research student? Please join the conversation and share your experiences in the comments section below.
P.S. For more on psychological safety, see: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305

Image is of two pears, with drawn on faces, smiling at each other 

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