YOU’VE CAREFULLY put your team of people together, spent a lot of time getting the right people on the bus, your best and brightest, and yet you’re underperforming? Your team isn’t giving you everything they’ve got.
People hold back when they feel it is not in their best interests to contribute—to say what they think. As a result of this interpersonal fear, we miss the benefit of the very minds we are relying on to move us forward. Creating psychological safety is essential in a world where innovation, integrity, and renewal can make the difference between success and failure.
In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson explains what psychological safety is and what it isn’t and how we can create in our organizations. We all—most of us—manage our image. Some better than others. But…
No one wakes up in the morning excited to go to work and look ignorant, incompetent, or disruptive. These are called interpersonal risks, and they are what nearly everyone seeks to avoid, bit always consciously. In fact, most of us want to look smart, capable, or helpful in the eyes of others. No matter what our line of work, status, or gender, all of us learn how to manage interpersonal risk early in life.
And it is this fear we have of looking bad or retribution that organizations must reduce or eliminate if we are to help people to bring their best to work.
Psychological safety is not about taking all of the bumps and ruts out of the road (which sadly is becoming more and more prevalent in leadership thought today). Psychological safety is like the oil in the machine. It makes everything else you’re doing work better. It is an enabler. “Psychological safety makes it possible for other drivers of success (talent, ingenuity, diversity of thought) to be expressed in ways that influence how work gets done.” Without it, people will withhold thoughts, ideas, and contributions that are vital to your growth, renewal, and the overall health of your organization.
It’s not about whistle-blowing. “Whistle-blowing is not a reflection of psychological safety but rather an indication of its absence.”
Psychological safety is not about introverts or extroverts. It’s not about being nice. It’s not about creating an environment where people are talking all the time. You need discipline. The is to make it easy for everyone to get everything out on the table so that you can proceed in a thoughtful, calculated way. Psychological safety doesn’t mean sharing everything either. That doesn’t create a safe place to work. People will learn where to draw the line with constructive feedback. It’s an emotional intelligence issue.
Psychological safety is not about lowering performance standards. It’s not aa anything goes environment. As the chart below shows, “psychological safety and performance standards are two separate, equally important dimensions—both of which affect team and organizational performance in a complex interdependent environment.
Psychological safety enables candor and openness and, as such, thrives in an environment of mutual respect. It means that people believe they can—and must—be forthcoming at work. In fact, psychological safety is conducive to setting ambitious goals and working toward them together. Psychological safety sets the stage for a more honest, more challenging, more collaborative, and thus also more effective work environment.
What keeps me up at night is the lower right-hand quadrant. When performance standards are high but psychological safety is low—a situation far too common in today’s workplace—employees are anxious about speaking up, and both work quality and workplace safety suffer.
One must build psychological safety to spur learning and avoid preventable failures, and they must set high standards and inspire and enable people to reach them.
We owe each other our opinions and ideas, and it is the responsibility of leaders to create and reinforce an environment where people free to do that. Psychological safety is about unleashing talent across your organization.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace is an ongoing function of leadership. Edmondson divides the process into three steps which she covers in detail: Setting the Stage, Inviting Participation, and Responding Productively.
Setting the Stage
This step is about framing the work to be done and how failure is to be dealt with. As GoogleX’s Astro Teller stated, “the only way to get people to work on big, risky things…is if you make that the path of least resistance for them [and] make it safe to fail. I’m not pro failure, I’m pro learning.”
Two mindsets are required here: situational humility and proactive inquiry. Humility is an obvious quality but not as easy to cultivate. Inclusiveness on the part of leaders helps in this regard. London Business School Profesor Dan Cable wrote, “Power…can cause leaders to become overly obsesses with outcomes and control,” inadvertently ramping up, “people’s fear—fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of failing—and as a consequence…their drive to experiment and learn is stifled.” No one feels safe presenting ideas to a know-it-all or someone who feels the need to be talking all of the time.
Proactive inquiry is actively asking questions designed to learn more about an issue, situation, or person. We benefit from a diversity of views. Implement structures designed to elicit employee input.
“It’s imperative that leaders—at all levels—respond productively to the risks people take. Productive responses are characterized by three elements: expressions of appreciation, destigmatizing failure,” and punishing clear boundary violations—reinforcing the rules of mutual respect.
There is a connection between psychological safety and learning. It’s foundational to building a learning organization. In an ever-changing world, learning and adaptability is everything. Edmondson admits that this is not an easy process. It’s not a natural process.
Creating psychological safety is a constant process of smaller and larger corrections that add up to forward progress. Like tacking upwind, you must zig right and then zag left and then right again, never able to head exactly where you want to go and never quite knowing when the wind will change.
It’s a necessary condition for success. What’s at stake is the future of our organizations.