We all know about ‘traditional safety’, whether we act on what we know or not; safety glasses, anti-slip footwear, protective gloves, seatbelts, and our family’s favorite: motorcycle helmets.
Psychological safety serves the same purpose: protection from harm or the threat. Yet psychological safety serves a deeper purpose, achieving the best possible conversations, soliciting the most (diverse) thoughts, experiences, and opinions, and getting the un-spoken out on the table so that those elephants can be addressed. This is what psychological safety is about. Thought leaders define psychological safety in terms of a person’s perceived safety when taking a risk such as speaking up, challenging the boss, or highlighting an elephant. If someone perceives to be psychologically safe they experience or expect an absence of negative consequences such as being seen as ignorant, incompetent, disruptive, or insubordinate with the likely consequence of some punishment; i.e. they are confident that the team will not retribute, embarrass, or punish them for making mistakes, asking (tough) questions, or suggesting new and possibly unpopular ideas.
On the other end of the scale, if you or your staff don’t fee save, you/they will likely
- Not easily ask for help or admit not-knowing.
- Hide mistakes and blame people or circumstances.
- Not speak up when the situation requires you to do so.
Many organizations have at least some procedures and functions where you can leave your concerns or complaints. Many countries have whistleblower laws and procedures and in the U.S. you can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yet it doesn’t all seem to be working well and it doesn’t seem to be sufficient. In line with my focus on personal and team accountability what can you and I do in our day-to-day interactions? What behaviors, encouragements, questions, and conversations can we start and model that will bring the whole team and organization closer to psychological safety?
For clarity, psychological safety is not about being nice or an ‘anything goes’ culture; it’s about honesty, transparency, mutual respect and trust, curiosity, humility, learning agility, non-defensiveness, and about valuing especially those differences that may be painful, inconvenient, or even reflecting on your or your team members’ weaknesses.
Rather than giving you how-to solutions, I’d like to stimulate you with questions, in random order, that will unravel hurdles and keys for psychological safety in the workplace:
- Which of our present behaviors are not conducive to creating a psychologically safe working climate, such as the ‘parking lot approach’, ridiculing, silencing, or ignoring?
- What do we have to do different in behavioral terms in order to better invite and acknowledge the widest variety of contributions to our conversations and meetings?
- What is it specifically that we need from our superiors to feel safe to take risks and bring contrarian views in our conversations with them?
- In what ways are our official and unofficial incentive systems helping and harming psychological safety?
- How can we know what to share, with whom, how, when, and with what purpose?
- How can we actively de-stigmatize mistakes, failures, and playing the devil’s advocate while making them work for the benefit of individual and team learning?
- How can we actively, timely, and respectfully curb know-it-all type behaviors?
- What are early-warning signs that staff are withholding concerns and comments?
- What specific improvements can help us all better acknowledge our own fallibility?
- Do we have incentives such as bonuses, promotions, or other recognitions for ‘failed’ projects that lead to meaningful insights and institutional learning?
- How are we balancing a striving for quality, perfection, and low-mistakes performance with smart risk-taking and forward learning from failures?
- What else may be unintentionally increasing team members’ anxieties for bringing their most honest and best opinions and suggestions to work?
- How can we improve our individual and collective emotional intelligence which is needed for all of the above?
Even though creating and ensuring a psychologically safe work environment absolutely starts with top leadership values, behaviors, and practices, every person at any position can start reflecting and improving with above questions, that you can than turn into conversations, however small the group. You have to start somewhere, and most importantly, we all have to own our own share and do our own part!
I’d like to close with some powerful phrases and questions that may contribute to a psychologically safer work environment:
- I don’t know and need help.
- I made a mistake. I am sorry.
- I would like to learn what your concerns are.
- I want us all to mine wisdom from your mistake.
- I like us all to benefit from the differences in the room.
- I value your opinion, especially since it contradicts mine.
- I’d like you all to stress-test my assumptions and conclusions.
- What is it that you are right now hesitant bringing to this conversation?
With thanks to Google’s project team Aristotle, Amy Edmondson and her colleagues, and the many other great minds who are pushing the importance of psychological safety in the workplace to the forefront. Some suggestions for further study:
- Book “The Fearless Organization – Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” by Amy Edmondson
- Book “Humble Inquiry – The Gentle Art of Asking instead of Telling” by Edgar Schein
- Book “Beyond Blame – Learning from Failure and Success” by Dave Zwieback