Collaboration and Psychological Safety in a Prison Environment

Relying on authority to get things done is a recipe for disaster. Personal credibility and influence are the ways to create collaboration and psychologically safe environments. This skill is becoming more important in L&D, as there is a requirement to get support and collaboration across multiple functions with no positional authority. In this blog, I share part of my story within the UK Prison Service, and how that helped shaped my views and work today.

Of course you want to work with a consultant who spent 18 years in the Prison Service. What could be more fun or relevant to your workplace, I hear you cry! 

You’d be surprised.

All the principles I believe in and apply today when it comes to working with staff teams to create psychologically safe workplaces with influential leaders, is based on what I learned, what I experienced, and what I eventually delivered training for whilst working in the Prison Service.

The creation of psychological safety is a big aspect of life inside a prison – for both inmates and staff alike. Traditionally, men’s prisons of all types (and I’ve worked in them all) tend to be a fairly macho, alpha-male environments. I don’t believe that this is in any way effective in terms of how those places are run or in terms of the outcomes they expect to gain. I was known as being fair (I was promoted to a position at the delightful Belmarsh when I was still baby-faced at 26), but very much fair, because my view is that prisons should rehabilitate – not punish. I learned over the years that the most effectively run units were based on collaboration and cooperation. You’d think they’d run on authority, but the minute there’s a weakness, a missed foothold, or you’re outnumbered, authority is the last thing you can rely on. You need to create a safe space in an unsafe environment. Simple.

That’s why I always refer to this element of my background as ‘getting them behind the door’, because ultimately, that was what my job was. Yes, it was also to motivate, encourage and influence inmates to leave prison a better person than when they came in, but ultimately, whenever the time came to get a prisoner to go back to their cell for whatever reason, my primary focus was to use all the tools at my disposal - figuratively speaking - to get them behind the door. You’re essentially negotiating with them on some level to get them to give up what limited time and freedom they already have. So, if you think barking at them to do this will work, it won’t. And yet, we see this strategy in place in many modern-day workplaces. Shocking.

When it comes to our individuals and staff teams in the workplace, we need to work with them in a way that makes them look forward to coming into work – not a way that makes them start looking for another job. We need to be dynamic and to ‘assess the day’. We need to communicate with people on a level that resonates exactly with them. 

Whatever your workplace, and however much it may or may not resemble a prison depending on who you ask, creating the right environment is all about conversation, and that’s something I facilitate when I work with my clients. Yes, even the difficult conversations. They’re the most important. 

So, although I won’t be using my methods to get you behind any doors when I work with you, I will be facilitating and leading you through ideas and processes that, if they can work in a prison, they can work anywhere! We’ll look at championing strengths, learning how to negotiate, being reflective, appreciating the importance of humility, balancing responsibility and accountability, establishing trust, and creating influence. And, we’ll be doing it all with more than a dash of the most important ingredient that was needed in those first 18 years of my career. Humour.  

If you think you could benefit from my background in getting your team to a place where it feels more like a position of respect than an ongoing hostage negotiation situation, get in touch.