A nurse, on a busy night shift hospital schedule, notices that a certain medical dosage for a particular patient is higher than normal. Immediately, she considers calling the doctor’s home to confirm. Just as fleetingly, she also recalls the doctor’s disparaging comments about her abilities the last time she had disturbed him. Unable to make a decision, she finally decides to let the patient remain on the same dosage under the assumption that he was on an experimental treatment protocol.
A young pilot on a military training flight noticed that his senior officer might have made a crucial misjudgment. He lets it go without making a call.
A senior executive had been recently hired by a very successful consumer products company to join the top management team. However, he had grave reservations about a plan to take over a competitor. New to the team, he chose not to say anything when everyone else was so enthusiastic about the plan.
These three different episodes have one thing in common – when speaking out was necessary and would have been helpful, it was held back and not expressed. Why did this happen? What was the missing thread that could have enabled these people to give vent to their opinions?
All these three workplaces did not encourage a psychologically safe work environment, an environment where the employee feels comfortable, accepted and respected enough to actively express their thoughts, regardless of their position.
What is Psychological Safety and Why Does it Matter?
Whenever an employee’s opinion or questions are withheld because of a lack of encouragement at the workplace, there is no scope for learning, coming up with new ideas and performing well for the betterment of the organisation.
According to Amy Edmondson who has conducted extensive research on this area, psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up about their ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
Research done by Google under Project Aristotle discovered how teams who had a psychologically safe work environment outperformed other teams. They did a massive 4-year study on 180 teams to find out why some teams excelled while others fell behind and learned that psychological safety was one of the biggest differentiators.
Before this study, like many other organisations, Google execs believed that building the best teams meant compiling the best people. It makes sense. The best engineer plus an MBA, throw in a PhD, and there you have it. The perfect team, right? Wrong, even with the right people, employees were still unable to fully voice their opinions for the fear of coming across as negative, incompetent, intrusive and ignorant.
The Importance of Psychological Safety
We are situated in a Knowledge Economy. It is the ideas people bring to the table that matters the most to the growth of an organization and adds value to the marketplace. Therefore, it stands to reason why organisations should encourage a climate of openness at the workplace and start hearing from people.
Yet, the research and data prove that an overwhelming number of people are unable to speak up at work. In many companies, it can be up to 50% of the employees who don’t consider it safe to speak up.
According to a 2017 Gallup poll, it was found that only three in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work.
It was calculated that by “moving the ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.”
This is where organisations could be lagging behind: game-changing ideas and strategies to create new products or services, warning of marketplace threats or improving an existing offering.
The issue of psychological safety in an organisation to a large extent is dependent on its leaders who hold top positions and how they treat their employees. High-functioning teams and its leaders with a high level of psychological safety are effective not just because they do fewer mistakes. They tend to acknowledge their mistakes and are willing to discuss them to quickly improve their solutions and methods.
An environment where managers and employees communicate without being fearful of adverse reaction offers the best medium for learning and being effective.
How to Build a Psychologically Safe Workplace?
Like all other things that involve people, psychological safety may seem to be difficult and hard to adopt in the beginning. But it’s really about uniting a team and give them an environment that sets everyone up for success.
Here are some simple ways to encourage psychological safety at the workplace:
Part 1: Setting the Stage
Whenever you are putting in the effort to get people on the same page with regards to common goals and shared interests, you are aptly setting the stage for psychological safety.
Here are some measures to do so:
1. Frame Tasks as an Opportunity for Learning and Not Just Execution
Be explicit about the uncertainties involved in the task and solicit ideas from your team to brainstorm solutions for it. Don’t just plan and try to execute it, learn from your team how best you can plan and then practically execute it.
This will enable a rationale for speaking up about how each team member can contribute and give the leader an opportunity to learn more about their talents.
2. Acknowledge your Mistakes
Nobody is infallible and may miss a thing or two when making critical decisions. The simplest thing for a leader to do is to acknowledge their mistakes and say “I may miss something, I need to hear from you”. When you acknowledge your mistakes, you encourage your peers and team members to speak up about their own. This will create an environment for safety and set the stage for candid feedback.
3. Encourage Curiosity
Ask a lot of questions to create a necessity to share ideas. Encourage a culture of curiosity to help employees ideate and become creative. It helps employees to actively participate in the discussion and stimulates open communication. It helps teams, as a whole, be more agile and adaptive to challenges. Not to mention, it also helps them to be more engaged. There are valuable outcomes of promoting a culture of inquiry, despite the risks of uncertainty and disagreement.
4. Treat Others Like they’d Like to be Treated
The golden rule of treating others the way you’d like to be treated does not hold good all the time. Make a change and try to treat people the way they’d like to be treated to experience its difference. Good leaders should seek the point of view of their subordinates and change their approach.
Take the time to understand your team – what they’d like with regards to the frequency of check-ins, type of feedback, communication style, etc.
Part 2: Invite Participation
The second step is inviting organic participation in a way that people find it authentic and appealing. Rather than fearing other co-workers or superiors and playing it safe, employees must be involved in the process with ‘situational’ humility and curiosity.
5. Learn to Earn Trust and Extend Trust
Amy Edmondson’s definitive research in this field also links trust to psychological safety. It describes a team climate as something that’s characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.
In addition, Google’s Project Aristotle has also found the trust to be a key ingredient of success for the requirement of a perfect team. So, take the necessary steps to build trust, maintain it and set an example for others to follow suit.
6. Effectiveness More Than Efficiency
Employees should not be viewed as mere resources working to achieve financial outcomes and other measures of efficiency. Instead, think up ways to be more effective. How can you induce effectiveness?
By creating a safe work environment for the people that reduces the threats people feel inside a group or team and thereby direct their energies to promoting the betterment of the organisation. Employees who feel emotionally secure through the practices of psychological safety will eventually be more productive, innovative and engaged. As a result, efficiency will automatically follow effectiveness.
7. It’s OK to Take Risks
A creative process, that is open to taking risks by having everyone feel comfortable to share their thoughts without any inhibitions, is the most effective pathway to generate big ideas. For instance, Pixar adopts an approach that is built around a culture of taking risks, where all ideas are encouraged and unpredictable paths are embraced.
The way to stoke innovation within a team is to banish perfectionism, focus on multiple ideas to catapult a project forward and to not let risk entirely dictate the process. Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar Studios, was the pioneer of testing several ideas and proceeding with one that consistently worked.
Part 3: Responding Productively
In order to reinforce an environment of psychological safety, it’s essential for leaders to respond productively to risks. Productive responses are characterized by expressions of appreciation, sanctioning violations and classifying failure to identify errors.
8. Expression of Appreciation
It is important to praise people for efforts, regardless of the outcome. When people believe that their performance is measured in terms of their abilities, they are likely to act with fear and may not open up fully. On the other hand, when employees believe that their performance is measured based on their efforts and strategies, they may be willing to try new things without fear and participate despite adversity and failure.
Appreciation – ranging from a modest Thank You(at least a small one for speaking up) to elaborate celebrations or bonuses – in response to the efforts of the employee can boost motivation, even if it is for a partial failure.
9. Create a Forum to Discuss Errors
A forum where errors are openly discussed is a healthy way to come up with solutions that will make up for those errors and encourage learning from past mistakes. Acknowledge gaps and demonstrate humility to promote an effective discussion that again works towards continuous learning.
Un-stigmatizing failure is a stepping stone towards success. It is the way to go forward by offering help, brainstorming what can be done next, discuss several ideas, consider possible outcomes and then come up with an effective solution.
10. Emphasize Purpose
Identify the greater purpose and goals that need actionable insights. For what use is engaging employees without any motive? So, recognize what’s at stake, why it matters and for whom it matters. This will align organisational purposes along with employees’ actions and set the stage for shared expectations. At the same time, if there are any violations or a breach of agreed purposes, identify the right measures to tackle the same.
Psychological Safety vs Accountability
While providing psychological safety to employees is essential, it cannot come at the cost of accountability at the workplace. Organizations are beginning to understand and embrace the benefits of Psychological Safety. They are willing to discuss errors, be open to continuous learning and encourage employees to communicate their candid thoughts.
But, most get nervous about going back a step from efficiency goals, taking the risk and not holding people accountable for great results.
However, organisations need to understand that Psychological Safety and Accountability are two different dimensions of high performance.
It’s important to find the right balance point between the two dimensions. Accountability along with freeing up people mentally, mitigating fear and engaging employees is of utmost importance.
According to researcher Amy Edmondson, there are four zones that can be characterized based on the two dimensions of Psychological Safety and Accountability.
The zones are as follows:
Low Accountability, Low Psychological Safety – Apathy Zone
In this zone, organisations fail to undertake measures for both and hence come into a dangerous zone.
High Psychological Safety, Low Accountability – Comfort Zone
If all you are doing is Psychological Safety without holding employees accountable for their actions and keeping them in check, you are creating a comfort zone for your employees and possibly leaving money on the table.
Low Psychological Safety, High Accountability – Anxiety Zone
Perhaps, one of the worst zones to be in, if you are only demanding excellence and efficiency from employees so much so that they are afraid to talk to each other, then you might need to make a shift.
High Accountability, High Psychological Safety – Learning Zone
This is the ideal position to be at where everyone is happy and it is a win-win for all. This is also the High-Performance Zone, High Engagement Zone and more positive things that can potentially be added on.
In a world of high uncertainty and interdependence, psychological safety is essential to create an environment that is conducive to the wellness of the employee. This will lead to effective employees who work towards the efficiency of the business as a whole.
Organisations need people to bring their best version to the job so that they can contribute to their fullest and the best way to do that is to adopt psychological safety. Building psychological safety is the right place to start building a fearless organisation.