What fascinates me most about the evolution of management theory is how much of what’s old becomes new again under different circumstances. The notion of encouraging employees to feel safe in the workplace, and therefore willing to say what’s on their minds, was discussed by Edgar Schein of MIT almost 70 years ago. He noted its importance in helping people overcome their “learning anxiety” and proclivity for self-protection when something didn’t quite go as they had hoped. It was again raised by Warren Bennis, the venerated guru of leadership, about a decade later and then resurfaced in the late nineties by Amy Edmondson of Harvard who later popularized it in her book, The Fearless Organization. Yet it took a pandemic to make the concepts of workplace safety and inclusion “ground zero” for leaders confronting the new realities of relentless uncertainty and the complications of today’s bifurcated, volatile work world.
A recent article (September 28/23) on the future of work in The Harvard Business Review sounded this ominous alarm: “We are at the beginning, not the end, of massive upheavals in our work lives.” Citing the rapidly growing capabilities of AI, the repercussions of the post-pandemic shift to hybrid and remote work, an increasing focus on employee diversity and wellbeing, changing demographic priorities, and the increasingly unstable geopolitical and economic context, leaders are understandably feeling overwhelmed if not exhausted.
You want your people to bring their brains to work and to collaborate in solving problems. Because that’s what you pay them for. High-performance organizations do two things especially well – they solicit and reality test ideas. The viability of an enterprise depends entirely on its capacity to do precisely that. Unfortunately, the asymmetrical power relationship between workers and their bosses puts pressure on the one with lower status to agree with those deemed by title to be of greater importance. That’s simply part of the human condition. As long as that norm or expectation is in place, fear exacts a toll on timely, open and robust dialogue. And that stifles curiosity, risk taking and innovation.
When employees at every level feel comfortable and confident speaking up, they share their knowledge, expand the universe of new ideas as well as useful suggestions worthy of further development, and prevent or resist collective tunnel vision and group polarization. Not infrequently, minority viewpoints once encouraged can turn into breakthrough solutions. When employees can freely voice their thoughts, concerns and fears, they challenge the status quo, find greater purpose in their work and raise bottom-line profitability. Which is why successful enterprises invest in and depend upon highly motivated intellectual capital.
To achieve that end, you’re asking your employees to do things that, in their minds – based on direct observation – can be career limiting. You want them to freely offer their opinions or answer questions they don’t fully understand, take seeming risks and make mistakes in trying to do so, honestly confess how they feel about longstanding workplace practices, openly express disagreement with their managers when necessary (i.e., speak truth to power), point out errors in the way things are being done (in their own performance as well as others), and readily challenge the half-baked decisions of those further up the chain of command. Although leaders encourage them to be forthright in their feedback, experience tells them such candour will, in all probability, put their jobs at risk.
People don’t speak their minds for a lot of reasons. Aside from the fear of being wrong, repercussions from those above who may feel threatened by honesty or the futility of sensing that nothing will actually change, there are nine other valid reasons that scare them into silence and produce superficial collegiality. The frequent, taken-for-granted rule in most workplaces is “Until I know what my boss thinks, I don’t feel I should tell her what I think.” Where a culture of fear prevails, employees believe you can’t be fired for saying nothing. Witnessing it every day, they fully understand the consequences of “talking yourself into trouble.”
Gallup says only 3 out of 10 employees believe their opinions actually count at work, though fewer than that offer them. If this number were to double, meta research suggests the result would be a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% decrease in errors and a 12% increase in productivity. Other very recent studies tell us that, when employees feel safe and included, there is a 29% increase in team collaboration and a 76% decrease in the risk of employee attrition.
In almost every article on the changing workplace, we’re alerted to the need for psychological safety. This refers to a state of mind where workers feel comfortable offering their ideas, asking good questions, sharing their concerns and candidly explaining their mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. The holy grail of worker engagement is only achieved when voice replaces silence. When employees witness rigorous debate and constructive dissent without fear of retaliation, they feel encouraged to participate and permitted to question the deficiencies they perceive in the way business is done. This outcome is impossible when the boss thinks he or she knows everything.
So, how do your build a culture of psych safety? First, you have to measure the depth of the disease. Among the questions you must ask (anonymously) of your employees and then quantify are these: Are you typically blamed for making mistakes? Are you comfortable bringing up your concerns or tough issues for discussion? Is it safe to take risks, admit failure or ask for help? Is honesty and candour appreciated by your boss? Are your skills openly valued and utilized? Without hard data, everything is just a matter of perception and opinion.
You then have to model curiosity and humility, foster the skills of feedback and learning, and challenge the practices that are no longer relevant or sustainable. You have to walk the talk on DEI initiatives and embed the sought-after objectives in manager performance metrics. It must be an explicit expectation and not a slogan or aspiration. Managers must not be told they should coach and solicit feedback; they need to be trained by experts on how to do it. Then they must be held accountable for the results (reference the anonymous polling exercise above).
You can’t tell your employees they should speak up. Rhetorical reassurance doesn’t work anymore – that’s the reality of the changing circumstances in today’s workplace. A culture shift is gradually built over time through constant and consistent role modeling. Every employee must be treated with equal respect and fairness regardless of what comes out of their mouths. All points of view must be acknowledged with non-judgmental dignity.
Never conflate viewpoint acceptance with a lack of accountability. Permission to speak one’s thoughts doesn’t carry with it the obligation to adopt the suggestions made. We all seek a respectful acknowledgment of our views; we don’t necessarily anticipate agreement with them. We just want to know we’ve been listened to and that our contribution is recognized and appreciated. When managers reward those who have the courage to challenge the status quo, they nurture safety and accelerate the growth of a speak-up culture and the innovation that invariably follows.
Disagreement is no longer a matter of disloyalty. Decision making is improved when people are encouraged to disagree – it sparks a robust debate of legitimate differences and viewpoints. In today’s workplace, manager intimidation should be a fireable offence. Employee commitment to the mission is possessing a genuine concern for and dedication to the best interests of the enterprise. And that requires, if not demands, a willingness to express sometimes contrarian thoughts. Without that, the inevitable consequence is known as groupthink – a primary reason why successful companies perish.
Separate job titles from the veracity of opinions.