It’s about whether you can speak up without being judged for it.
Imagine this: a nurse in a hospital is doing the rounds during her night shift and notices that the prescribed dosage for the medication of a certain patient seems remarkably high. Too high. She doubts whether this can be right. For a moment, she considers calling the doctor at home to check whether he might have made a mistake. But then she thinks about the last time she called him at home. About how condescending he was to her then. About the sharp words he used to question her abilities. And so she decides not to call and to administer the medicine at the prescribed dosage. Despite her doubts. Despite the risk.
You may be thinking as I did when I read this for the first time: how strange. Or: that would never happen to me. As a business coach this topic fascinates me. I decided to dive into the topic further. According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, these kinds of situations occur every day, on many work floors and in many work fields, all over the world. Situations in which people weigh up the urge to speak out against the risk they run if they actually do so. According to Edmonson, whether people dare to speak out at crucial moments has little to do with the personal character, expertise or moral compass of the individual, but everything with one crucial question: to what extent is there psychological safety in the work environment? To what extent do people feel free to say what is on their mind, without running the risk of being judged for it?.
When you voice your concerns, is there a chance you meet resistance and scorn from managers or in extreme cases the risk of jeopardising your career chances.
Whether it’s transgressive behaviour or companies with a culture of fear: with increasing media coverage of scandals involving the atmosphere and manners in the workplace, “psychological safety” is a term that is coming up more and more often. But what is it exactly? How do you create it? And why is it so important? According to Edmondson’s definition, psychological safety is the belief that no one will be punished or humiliated for voicing ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. The concept has been used before by scientists such as behavioural and organisational psychologist William Kahn, but Amy Edmondson put the concept on the map for the general public since 2018 with her bestseller The fearless organisation.
Consequences of insecurity
In her book, supported by scientific insights, research and practical examples, she argues that psychological safety not only ensures better functioning teams, but also shows what the consequences can be if it is lacking. The story of the nurse who does not dare to confront a doctor with a possible mistake is just one of many examples. Another story she cites is that of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts. Shortly after the shuttle’s launch, an engineer had noticed that something might have gone wrong and wanted to raise the issue. But when he voiced his concerns, he met with resistance and scorn from his superiors. He kept his mouth shut, even though it would later become catastrophically clear that he was right.
As a coach working in corporate environment. I am inspired by this concept and come across the consequence of the presences and absences of having psychological safety as part of the culture.
5 things you need to know about psychological safety
At work, we are constantly working on the impressions we make on the people around us. We want to manage these impressions as well as possible and make them correspond to how we want to see ourselves. In order to ensure that your employees waste as little energy as possible on this, it is important to guarantee psychological safety. In other words, to ensure that team members feel safe enough to take risks and allow themselves to be vulnerable.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY LEADS TO GREATER EFFICIENCY
This typical reticence ties in with what is called ‘cognitive dissonance’. In psychology, this term is used to refer to a kind of avoidance behaviour. You prefer to avoid situations and input that could damage your self-image and the impression you give to others. That is why you remain silent, hold your opinion back, do not ask that important question during the meeting, … all out of fear of appearing stupid.
Constantly calculating risks, however, takes a lot of mental energy. Edmondson discovered that organisations notice this in their results and turnover. With her research, she wanted to find out whether there is a correlation between making mistakes at work and the degree to which people talk about them. At first glance, the results of her study suggested that efficient teams make more mistakes than less efficient teams. However, further analysis revealed that the more efficient teams did not necessarily make more mistakes, but that these team members were more willing to discuss and report errors. Plus they work on continuous improvements to ensure the procedures/processes improve constantly. Follow-up research also revealed that the teams with the most open communication culture were the most likely to discuss their mistakes.The results from her study help convince organisation that looking into this topic has a positive impact on the overall results and is not just a fluffy touchy feely topic.
HOW DO YOU CREATE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY?
Edmondson’s findings led to the term ‘psychological safety’. A psychologically safe working environment is one in which people freely ask questions, share ideas and give feedback. In such an environment, there is little or no need for (mental) strategies to protect yourself from possible damage to your image. A psychologically safe environment stimulates an attitude where everyone sees input as a potential learning gain, not as a weight in the scales of professional image.
Achieving such psychological safety is a daily task. The considerations below offer a guideline for companies and managers looking to create a work environment that is considered to be psychologically safe.
1. Team culture is decisive
The degree of psychological safety and the way you achieve it, depends on the kind of team you are dealing with. In a clan culture, for example, there is a high degree of interdependence. Team members rely heavily on each other. As long as uncertainty and pressure remain relatively low, everything here seems like ‘fun and games’. But before you can accelerate in such a team, it must be clear to everyone that criticism, pressure or feedback need not come at the expense of the (family) working atmosphere.
In a market culture (mainly based on individuality and healthy competition), psychological safety is more a question of creating certainty about targets and goals, and the way team members talk about these things.
2. A psychologically safe workplace
A psychologically safe workplace is not the same as a risk-free workplace. No bubble wrap around employees or ideas that criticism and sanctions are outdated. Psychological safety just means that employees can properly assess what their input will bring to a team and what reactions they can expect. A psychologically safe environment is one with greater certainty about how interactions will unfold, whether positive or rather negative.
3. Keep an open mind
There is a difference between safety and complete openness. Psychological safety is not an excuse to throw tact and caution out of the window. Nor is it a kind of blind creed in which everyone, regardless of the relevance of the topic, must contribute something. Hearing everyone’ does not mean that everyone should always be heard on everything. In a safe working environment, you remain accountable for what you say and you formulate the content of your message as an opportunity to learn something.
4. The power of rituals
The security we have been talking about so far is, in a certain sense, always about certainty. Certainty about protocols, about the way we deal with success and failure, about reactions to input and about being heard. One way to maintain these certainties is to ritualise certain behaviours. How do you celebrate small & larger successes? How do you check how your colleagues are doing? How do you open and close meetings? What do you do on Friday at the end of the working week? Rituals not only contribute to team bonding, they also provide the predictability on which psychological safety largely relies.
5. No standards, no psychological safety
It may seem counterintuitive, but completely loose reins in terms of work objectives, quotas, processes or responsibilities work against a safe working environment. It’s more about general clarity about expectations and assessment quotas. To create a safe work environment, you need to be accurate in expectations and responsibilities. And also be explicit and authentic when stating that you welcome ideas and input. When someone feels feedback could lead to punishment or ‘revenge’, it undermines both the safe environment and the creativity and entrepreneurship in your organisation.
In this article so far we focussed on the corporate environment however this can apply in sport teams and families situations as well.