Psychological safety is defined as the feeling one will not be punished or humiliated for candidly speaking up with their ideas, asking awkward questions, expressing genuine concerns, contradicting their boss, or making mistakes. When this environment exists in a workplace, high performance is the result – people become more committed to the organizational mission and thus more creative, adaptive, generative and resilient. They speak truth to power without fear of embarrassment or reprisal.
When workers offer silence rather than voice, anxiety rises and productivity is diminished. People choose to not contribute, openly or otherwise, and actively disengage. The benefits of cognitive diversity are unrealized, defensive behaviour prevails and loyalty (hence tenure) abates. And sometimes all it takes is an ill-timed sigh or head shake from the boss. Body language always speaks faster and louder than words.
Although greater attention is now being paid to the notion of psychological safety in the workplace, it’s not a new concept. Edgar Shein and Warren Bennis, two gurus of workforce performance, wrote about it in the sixties. Schein, in particular, noted its importance in helping people overcome their “learning anxiety,” defensiveness and proclivity for self-protection (to enhance their understandable self-image of competence) when something didn’t quite “go” as they had hoped or expected. While engagement became preeminent as a management priority almost three decades later, psychological safety is the precursor.
As a leader, you want your people to bring their brains to work, freely share their intellectual capital, become a cohesive team and collaborate to solve problems in a world that is perpetually changing. This requires open, honest, diverse and frequent communication. Unfortunately, what is more often given back is either stillness, a shrug or an echo chamber. Where a culture of fear prevails, employees generally believe you can’t be fired for saying nothing.
People don’t speak up for many reasons. The primary ones are a reluctance to stand out in the presence of their colleagues, being wrong, or offending or contradicting the boss, particularly in the presence of others. Too often, a broadly understood rule in many workplaces is “Until I know what my boss thinks, I don’t feel comfortable telling her otherwise.” Psychological safety is impossible when the boss thinks he or she knows everything.
A mountain of research studies from highly credible sources indicate why silence is preferred over voice. These findings include the following:
• 36% of workers say they are rarely or “never” asked for their ideas about workplace improvements;
• 26% say their ideas, once given, are not listened to or utilized;
• 25% are “just showing up to collect a paycheque;”
• 54% believe they have more talent and intelligence than their job either requires or allows; and
• 53% think their work doesn’t really count “for anything.”
In a 2017 survey, Gallup found only three of ten employees say their opinions actually count at work. Gallup further calculated that, if that number doubled to 6 of 10, the result would be a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% decrease in safety errors and a 12% increase in productivity. One can debate the relevance of the sample or the results, but the conclusion should be crystal clear: No enterprise seeking sustainable competitive advantage today can afford to have a culture in which people are afraid to fearlessly contribute and speak their minds. When people feel comfortable offering their ideas, asking questions or candidly explaining their mistakes (which carries a degree of risk), without fear of embarrassment or retribution, the workforce becomes more fully engaged and committed to organizational success.
The first step in building a psychologically safe workplace is to measure the quantum of trust in your organization. Several instruments exist in the public domain and include such obvious questions as:
• Are you blamed for making mistakes?
• Are you comfortable bringing up controversial issues for discussion?
• Is it safe to take risks, admit failure or ask for help?
• Is candour appreciated by your boss?
• Are your often asked for your ideas and are they utilized?
You build a safe environment for workers by explaining the need for voice over silence, by inviting feedback and role modeling the culture you seek to create – one that blends curiosity with humility. You frequently ask good questions and listen intently without judgement. You destigmatize failure and express open appreciation for intelligent risking. You do however sanction preventable mistakes that are caused by carelessness, laziness or an unwillingness to learn. You treat your workers as adults, not children.
Psychologically safe environments aggressively encourage and enable candour and a willingness to experiment, not play it safe all the time and confidently own one’s learning. Since the essence of creativity is thinking differently, conversations should generate robust discourse and occasional disagreement among people who tend to see things differently.