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The Fearless Organization: Psychological safety in the workplace

13 Jan

The Fearless Organization: Psychological safety in the workplace

Most people understand the feeling of being nervous before an important work presentation, or not daring to speak up in a meeting in fear of being ridiculed by co-workers for input brought up or thinking one’s ideas are not as good as someone else’s. This fear can prevent you from performing at your best, and hinder career development and progression, and possibly exclude you from being selected to manage a critical task or join a team on an important project.

The cause of such fear often stems from stress, anxiety, frustration, or a lack of self-confidence. Whatever the underlying cause, it is real, and needs to be managed.

In her bestseller book, “The fearless organization”, Professor Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School delved deep into this issue. Her findings and theories, based on almost 30 years of research, are all about psychological safety in the workplace and more importantly, on how to create such a state, and helping leaders turn their organisations into “fearless organisations”.

Let us explore some of the main points she raised and offer some guidance.

Don’t be afraid to look silly.

Don’t worry – pretty much everybody feels this sometimes. A behavior often originating during early childhood, when kids are being laughed at for looking different, getting an answer wrong, being clumsy, or asking a question perceived by others as ‘stupid’, often transcends into adulthood, and consequently follows them into the workplace. As a natural reflex and defense mechanism, some people try to make themselves smaller by staying in the background, not speaking up, and hiding in the shadows to make themselves less of a target.

Under the weight of fear, we do not and cannot make the same rational decisions as we would in a fearless state of mind. None of us are at our best when we are scared.

What if you know that you made a mistake and need to own up to it, or you notice a mistake that a colleague or even your boss made? What if you could feel at ease to speak up about that mistake, and they react in a grateful way as you would save them and the company embarrassment, time and potentially money by speaking up? Unfortunately, and largely in accordance with one’s work relationships, especially with management, people often fear being prosecuted, bullied, or ridiculed when speaking up.

Therefore, the safer alternative seems to keep one’s head down, which functions as an understandable act of self-preservation, although this is certain to have a detrimental impact on both the individual and the organization in the long run. This is an evolutionary human trait that people adopt in psychologically unsafe situations, and this is very much in tune with our internal fight or flight response, and often at our own expense.

How can psychological safety help? And how do we create a psychologically safe zone?

If the work environment is characterized by a culture of open communication, where feedback is valued, and you can trust your co-workers to provide constructive criticism, then this provides a helpful, psychologically safe environment in which to work and flourish.

Without having one’s hard work being overshadowed by fear, one is much more likely to feel energized and possibly even more motivated afterwards.

This does not mean one has to be best friends with everyone or love every single aspect of one’s job. Psychological safety is not dependent on being best buds with everyone but is characterized by positive and effective communication methods. Many of the world’s leading companies (incl. Google – New York Times article published in 2016), have implemented psychological safety practices, and through multiple studies have found that the real difference between high-performing- and low-performing teams is not educational backgrounds, skillsets, or a multitude of other factors accounted for, but the best predictor for a healthy and effective team was psychological safety.

Working with people can be hard, especially in highly diverse environments where people speak different languages, come from different cultural backgrounds, have different skills, learning styles, and workloads. Properly implemented psychological safety practices will greatly assist to eliminate an environment of low psychological safety, and instead foster an environment of high psychological safety, one on which open communication, mutual trust and honesty are the minimum norms.

How do we know if the environment is psychologically safe?

Measuring psychological safety, typically including questions like “it is difficult to ask other members of this team for help” or “members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues”, is a good indicator and recommended best practice to find out how psychologically safe, at ease, and included employees feel. Understanding the current state of the organization is of course only the first step to tear down perceived barriers and in turn help top management decide on what concrete actions to take to make the company a more psychologically safe environment. The benefits of doing so are plentiful.

How does one implement psychological safety at work?

Is the social structure a pyramid with your manager on top? Does this represent the power structure of the company? The boss being on top at a seemingly untouchable power position – they are in charge; the rest is beneath them and at very unequal footing? Psychological safety undermines this structure by being predicated on the notion of open communication and a free exchange of ideas.

Instead of being an authoritarian figure giving orders from above, a leader should set a positive tone at the workplace, encourage and offer guidance while leading the team in the right direction. This approach, however, only works when management sets the right tone and live by it. Consequently, psychological safety and trust are highly dependent on a top-down practice. Moreover, employees can tell if the management is sincere, means what they say and say what they mean. It is therefore critical to establish trust.

What should be encouraged in every organization is cultivating a culture of safety: one of collaboration, communication and a spirit of openness and equality. This can be further enhanced by encouraging failure. Although this notion sounds counterproductive, encouraging failure is not the same as encouraging employees to underperform or to lower the overall standards accordingly.

A widespread and misconstrued perception in most organizations is that people usually assume failure is the number 1 thing to avoid at any cost. Encouraging failure, as an encouragement to try something new, is an excellent learning opportunity, and ultimately stimulates professional growth. Failure or making mistakes can mean that people are engaged and motivated, and this in turn will at the very least lead to learning what works (and what does not), how to do (or not to do) a given task, all of which should be openly talked about, and experiences shared amongst each other.

The role of management

By management openly communicating vulnerability and discussing mistakes made, this will set the tone for the rest of the firm and largely destroy the fear of opening up about one’s own failures, and thus, creating a psychologically safe and fearless workplace. Giving employees a voice, enables them to work together in harmony and mutual respect, all of which encourages growth and higher performance. Fearless organizations are winning organizations.

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