ENCOURAGING A “SPEAK-UP CULTURE”
The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Establishing a climate of psychological safety allows space for people to speak up and share their ideas.”
Edmondson continues: “Psychological safety is the belief that the workplace is safe for speaking, with ideas, questions, concerns and even mistakes. It’s a sense of confidence that your voice is valued. You can think of this as a sense of permission for candor, that the workplace is somewhere we count on your voice being heard… psychological safety is not about being “nice”. It’s not about holding back on something that might be unpleasant, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s about candor… it’s also not [about] freedom from conflict. In a psychologically safe workplace, there will be conflict. People will have different views and will seek to understand each other’s views better and come out with a better solution.”
What research tells us
Numerous research papers describe psychological safety as a key determinant of high-quality communication, trust, and decision making which improves team performance and, therefore, plays an important role within workplace teams. Psychological safety plays a particularly vital role in high-risk work contexts, such as healthcare. When healthcare teams are psychologically safe they are more likely to engage in quality improvement and team learning initiatives. This engagement allows healthcare teams to deal with the increased knowledge they need to absorb, the specialization of healthcare professionals, and the resulting interdependence between these professionals.
Research suggests that a lack of psychological safety has been associated with silence. Even when employees believe they have something useful to say, lack of psychological safety often leads them to choose “silence over voice”. It is necessary to encourage an organizational climate where it is safe to speak up and voice ideas or concerns, as this enables organizational learning and organizational safety.
Psychological safety is “a condition in which one feels (a) included, (b) safe to learn, (c) safe to contribute, and (d) safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way” (Clark, 2019).
Detlef Hold, Head of Digital Learning Experience at pharmaceutical giant Roche, takes up the story: “Professor Timothy Clark looks at fostering inclusion and innovation to enable organizational transformation. In this context, he describes four stages of psychological safety which go from “Inclusion Safety” (members feel wanted, included, and appreciated) to “Learner Safety” (members can experiment, make some mistakes, ask for help) to “Contributor Safety” (members can volunteer their ideas without fear of embarrassment) to “Challenger Safety” (members question each other’s ideas and suggest significant changes). The model may look a bit linear, yet it is useful for understanding that psychological safety has various qualities and is not a binary on/off thing, but a situational mechanism determined by the environment, circumstances (time, context) and the team itself. Team members may be at different stages and that may feel discordant and require bringing everyone along together at a similar pace.”
(Organizations need to) leverage the voice of employees to drive innovation
Organizations often will require employees to contribute to the continuous improvement of organizational processes and practices through behaviors that enable learning to occur such as voicing new ideas, collaborating with other members of the organization, and experimenting with new ways of doing things.
While such activities may benefit the organization, they carry certain risks for the individual. For example, the voicing of new ideas might challenge the established way of doing things and go against the vested interests of other members of the organization. In addition, experimentation with new approaches in the workplace might ultimately be unsuccessful, viewed as a failure, and lead the individuals involved to be seen in a negative light.
As a result, such risks may lead employees not to contribute to learning processes, and thereby inhibit both individual and organizational learning. The provision of a psychologically safe work environment such as one in which employees feel safe to voice ideas, willingly seek feedback, provide honest feedback, collaborate, take risks, and experiment, is one way to overcome such threats to individual and organizational learning.
Dmitry Zenkov, Head of Commercial Excellence at Sandoz says, “Psychological safety in the workplace is important because it enhances employee engagement. When team members feel safe at work, it’s easier for them to engage. This could be in a team meeting, solving problems, collaborating on projects, and engaging with their customers and peers.”
Leaders rightfully spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the work environment a psychologically safe space.
How to create psychological safety
In order to create psychological safety, it’s critical to start by understanding what — exactly — employees want to feel safe to do. Feeling safe to take risks and make mistakes, speaking up when others need to be challenged, and showing up as your authentic self without feeling excluded are all important — and according to science — all meaningfully different.
Dr Rasheed Joseph-Young says, “Psychological safety is both an input and an output. In order to experience psychological safety, we must have input: inclusion, deliberately engage others and listen humbly. We must also seek to reduce ambiguity, reframe how failure is responded to, and promote connecting work to purpose. The output will be a speak-up culture, where all feel a sense of belonging and want to bring their innovative thoughts and ideas to the table by using their voices constructively. We will also see people taking on more ownership of the work, taking more risks, and being more vulnerable in learning. We will see people up-skilling and re-skilling to pursue purposeful work.”
Psychological safety enables team performance and a healthy workplace culture
Analysis conducted by Google’s People Analytics Unit concluded that psychological safety was the number one characteristic of successful high-performing teams.
Team psychological safety (or TPS) is a shared belief that people feel safe about the interpersonal risks that arise concerning their behaviors in a team context (Edmondson, 2018). “Project Aristotle,” which explored over 250 team-level variables, found that successful Google teams have five elements in common: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact of work (Google, 2015).
The findings argue that psychological safety is the most critical factor and a prerequisite to enabling the other four elements. However, surprisingly, despite the importance of that psychological factor, only 47% of employees across the world described that their workplaces are psychologically safe and healthy. (Ipsos, 2012).
Detlef Hold of Roche concludes: “Writer & researcher Julian Stood made me aware of the fact that psychological safety is “not a precursor (or pre-condition)” of working in teams or communities, rather it is an emerging mechanism between people fostered by the very same people through subtle, yet powerful ways of behaving and acting with each other. It’s a co-created state which can emerge at any moment, and be lost at any moment. As such, it is not enough to educate us about psychological safety to then intentionally “build” psychological safety in a social group – and move on. Instead, it is a phenomenon we need to be constantly aware of and work on intentionally. Similar to trust, it is the “money”, the social glue and the foundation for teams and the collaborations to enable high performance and innovation. And similar to trust, it is hard to create and easy to lose.”
If you would like to adopt and explore some of the ideas in this article, take a dive into our 10-point Psychological Safety Guide which can be downloaded below.