Psychological Safety at Work: a Performance Issue

Companies like Google have found that psychological safety is one of the key elements that make their teams effective. However, it’s a misconception to think that psychologically safe work environments are the norm. In fact, they are rare.

Psychological safety is the perception that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks within a team. It’s the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. When psychologically safety is present, interpersonal fear goes away. 

It’s a misconception that psychologically safe work environments are the norm, when in fact they are rare. The other little known truth is that psychological safety is ultimately a performance issue.

What is Psychological Safety and Why Is It So Important? 

In her landmark Ted Talk, Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Innovation, Learning and Growth, cites “three episodes of workplace silence when voice was necessary”: a night shift nurse who feels a tinge of uncertainty about a medication dosage written by the doctor, a young military pilot who suspects a misjudgment by a senior officer, and a senior executive, new to an organization, with strange feelings about a takeover plan already in motion when he arrives. 

Workplace silence happens because in order to avoid looking ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative, employees do not ask questions, admit weaknesses or mistakes, offer alternative ideas, or criticize the status quo. Edmondson points out that “impression management” is already a well-conditioned behavior by the time we are working adults and keeps us from using our voice when we need to.

This self-protection robs individuals and colleagues of learning moments and keeps people from contributing fully to create a better organization. When psychological safety is present, people can take the interpersonal risks of learning, without fear of social penalties. This requires inclusive leadership that encourages speaking up with concerns, questions, ideas and mistakes - no matter who you are - without fear of punitive social consequences. 

According to Edmondson, where both uncertainty and interdependence are present, psychological safety is essential. It enables everyone to bring their full selves to the table, without putting the “brakes" on their own instincts, inspiration or voice. When we have psychological safety, we are not afraid to ask the ‘stupid’ questions, deliver difficult news, acknowledge a problem, throw out a left-field idea, brainstorm aloud, ask for help or disagree with the dominant perspective in the room.

How Does Psychological Safety (Or a Lack of It) Affect Organizations? 

While in 2017, 3 of 10 employees in a Gallup poll expressed their opinions don’t count at work, a recent Catalyst survey showed that half of women business leaders face difficulty in speaking up in virtual meetings, and 1 in 5 feel overlooked or ignored. A Dale Carnegie 2021 survey found only one in five employees feel comfortable sharing constructive criticism, while only 17% strongly agreed leaders encourage critique, experimentation and learning from mistakes. PwC concurred that in remote and hybrid working environments, employees are more separated and therefore more discouraged from speaking up and admitting mistakes.

Research shows that the disadvantages of not having a work environment that is psychologically safe include inaccurate or delayed reporting, stressed or disengaged employees, as well as stifled ideation, creativity and constructive criticism - all resulting in an organization that lacks quick and decisive action when market conditions change.  

On the flip side, when Google’s People Operations investigated what makes their teams effective, they assumed it would come down to who was on the team. But after looking at over 250 attributes across 180+ active teams, they concluded: “We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

Among five key dynamics that set successful teams apart, Google found psychological safety was “far and away the most important.” The research team concluded that the fear of engaging in behaviors that can negatively influence how others might perceive our competence, awareness or positivity is completely detrimental to effective teamwork. 

In contrast, team members feeling psychologically safe to take risks positively underpins every other important dimension of effectiveness. Further, individuals on those teams with higher psychological safety were less likely to leave Google, and the teams themselves were more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas, bring in more revenue, and be rated as effective twice as often by executives.

How Can Inclusive Leadership Help To Create Psychological Safety? 

Edmondson, who originally coined the term, and Hugander emphasize that fostering psychological safety is, above all, a performance issue: “Building a psychologically safe work environment starts with shifting the narrative of the intervention from culture change or interpersonal skills in order to make the case that the quality and candor of conversation matters for results.”

Leadership plays a massive role in creating psychological safety. Edmondson has demonstrated that leaders who are open, available and accessible help cultivate the feeling of psychological safety, as does high-quality interpersonal relationships and making team members feel their input is invited and appreciated. When individuals feel comfortable to speak up, they are more likely to suggest innovative ideas for change and modifications to the status quo, even when others disagree.

Inclusive leadership contributes to psychological safety and also empowers employees to be more creative with novel solutions - which especially matters in intensive, complex, and uncertain environments. 

Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, says that employees need to feel comfortable with interpersonal risk-taking on four levels:

  • inclusion safety: to feel included, like they belong, safe to be themselves, and accepted
  • learning safety: to feel safe to learn and grow, ask questions, experiment and make mistakes
  • contributor safety: to feel safe to use skills and abilities to make a meaningful difference
  • challenger safety: to feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo or voice opportunities to make things better

In order to foster psychological safety, Edmondson encourages leaders to frame work as a learning context, acknowledge their own fallibility, and model curiosity. Training at both the individual and team level are recommended. 

Tips for encouraging psychological safety through inclusive leadership include:

  • Make explicit the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, as a key value in the organizational culture.
  • Monitor teams to observe inadvertent dynamics that suppress ideas or differing opinions, and interrupt them with encouragement of unique contributions.
  • Facilitate a coaching culture which inspires people to speak their truth and values authentic expression, candor and open-mindedness.
  • Normalize transparency and vulnerability, being receptive to others’ ideas, not having all the answers and asking questions as positive leadership behaviors.
  • Foster connection between employees, including sharing things such as hobbies and interests, especially in hybrid work environments.
  • Create space for innovative ideas that are out-of-the-box and highly creative, and in which team members feel safe to explore half-thoughts too.
  • Encourage a default response of curiosity as a leadership behavior amidst constructive criticism or challenging of the status quo, rather than defensiveness.
  • Encourage diversity of thought in which discordant opinions with teams are invited as the productive friction that creates better ideas, and discourage treating alternative opinions, criticism, questions or mistakes with degradation or hostility.
  • Reframe mistakes and informed risk-taking as valuable learning opportunities from which to learn, grow and get better.
  • Train leaders to manage conflicting perspectives, so that dialogue and debate is productive, treated in a respectful manner and not shied away from.
  • Make feedback a regular check-in practice within teams to create a more consistent loop, rather than only applicable for the end of projects or performance reviews.
  •  Embolden leaders to intervene when team members undermine the voice or contribution of another team member, eroding a sense of psychological safety.

With interdependence and uncertainty tangible in our world context, we need psychological safety now in the workplace to cultivate both realized contributors and truly innovative organizational mindsets and developments.

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