Psychological safety has become a buzzword in recent times, especially with pioneers like Google discovering this to be a key contributor to a team’s performance. Additionally, strong voices like Timothy Clark, Amy Edmondson, and Duena Blomstrom have added valuable insights into this moment.
Having said this, according to Maslow, 1943; and more recently Glasser, 1998; ‘the human need for Safety is an innate/basic need’. This translates to a need for physical safety and psychological safety.
To begin with, therefore, the effort being made in the last 5 – 8 years in some workplaces on psychological safety is late but relevant. And hence, the call of action is for every influential voice in an organization to take a holistic approach for creating a performance-driven culture, by establishing Psychological Safety.
“Psychological safety is “a condition in which human beings feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, safe to challenge the status quo, all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way”, Clark, 2020.
In my own work this is what I found:
- In a psychologically unsafe environment upwards of 90% of people won’t even make a noise about it. They fear reprimand and isolation, and they feel that nothing will happen to change things even if they raised a voice.
- Repeated conversations about psychological safety are needed to get people to open up and share about the challenges they face.
- There are 3 ways of looking at creators of unsafe psychological space: the toxic individuals, the toxic manager population, and the toxic leadership population. Each brings a unique element of complication to the environment. Interestingly, the people who bring toxicity to an environment have been referenced in many other contexts too for corrective action: from individual development to managerial development to leadership development. In fact, lack of emotional or social intelligence and coercive style of management has found many references.
- When asked to what degree the feeling of being unsafe impacts their productivity, people reported the impact in the range of 50% – 90%
- In some interesting cases, there are individuals who said, everything is alright in my culture, while many others were reporting lack of psychological safety. When examined well, these individuals turned out to be the ones belonging to the toxic category or were aligned to the toxic individuals in the system for personal gains.
- Coercive and manipulative politics is one big reason for the lack of psychological safety. This is contributed: by individuals who have a sense of entitlement or threat perception; by managers who use divisive and forceful methods for extracting performance; and by leaders who are too busy in their turf wars to care for the well-being of their people.
- The other situations where Psychological Safety is compromised are; lack of clear values, frequent organisational leadership changes; a ’do things at any cost’ culture; and no organizational systems to check the bad behaviours people bring to work.
- In fact, there are certain functions like Sales, and Manufacturing where people consider it a norm that harsh language, angry outbursts, and power posing is the only way to get people to act and perform. The number of horror stories I have heard from these teams in even some of the best organizations, is startling.
- In around 80% of executive coaching conversations, lack of psychological safety has come-up for discussion. Half of these were about how even senior leaders feel psychologically unsafe to openly ask, challenge, or influence people. They fear attrition, markdowns in engagement surveys, hostility from peers and even being falsely reported to the helplines in the organization. The other half of the conversations were about the leader’s behaviour and how it wasn’t helping people feel psychologically safe.
- In a recent article: ‘Are you balancing ‘Built by the Organization’ vs. ‘Organization Building’ I had called out the need for organization building. What I have found is that organizations that are only focused on revenue, without worrying about how they build the environment / organizational space that performs to make the money, are highly prone to creating unsafe environments. Basically, in these organizations, perform or perish and sink or swim is the philosophy. What one experiences in these organizations is an each to their own rescue mindset.
- The ones who endure, are the ones who can create the cure. Hence, the Psychological Safety program is not something to be written or driven by a central team of HR or Business. They can own the context, but the content of the program needs to be majorly owned by the people who have witnessed the bad behaviours in the organization.
- One final element: Psychological Safety is key for the success of translating strategy to execution, effectiveness of performance management, outcomes of talent management, effectiveness of D&I, and the success of many other program in the organization.
Hope, some of this was relatable and compelling for you to enamine the challenges of psychological safety in your own organization. It is only when these truths are found and told, can we build a high-performance culture, where everyone contributes proactively, at the right time, and sustains their efforts to make things happen. This is the kind of environment that where everyone gradually becomes performance-driven and focused on the impact of work. Undoubtedly, other systems of the organization must kick incorrectly. Yes, psychological safety is not the end, but it is the fundamental on which several other programs/systems of the organization thrive.
Every toxic behaviour needs to be tackled to facilitate a performance driven culture. In fact, even inaction of individuals, managers and leaders can create lack of psychological safety, and hence needs to be fixed.
At the leadership levels, say the top 2 – 3 layers, there needs to be clear importance given to psychological safety. They need to grasp and understand that some of the unscientific practices that they experienced during earlier years are no more relevant. In fact, leadership today needs to have a broad array of skills to manage people and performance situation. One key action for leaders is clarifying the values of the organization to establish psychological safety as a must, and then role model this behaviour.
Leaders need to spell out a value for this, and the related behaviours without any ambiguity. Values like: ‘respect’ is usually not clarified enough or is not even powerful enough to do this. Dignity, Safety, Psychological Safety; these are better values to be used.
I am sure you can come up with powerful ones in your context. They need to be established, practised and measured regularly. And then based on the experience, much needs to be done with or for the managerial and individuals in the organization to ensure psychological safety for all.
In some of my recent work, I found that leaders, managers, and individuals who have the following three qualities operating in tandem are found to create a better experience of psychological safety for others:
- Interpersonal Sensitivity
- Task Sensitivity
- Action-orientation/ decision making sensitivity
The first has been spoken about much w.r.t. emotional and social intelligence and continues to be the adeptness of a leader, individual or manager to understand others, respect their space, listen and be inclusive. This is the quality that encourages the value of ideation, exchange, healthy competition, and constructive confrontation. Individuals with healthy Interpersonal Sensitivity will also not bring their biases or their past into conversations. This quality also reduces judgement and criticism, two serious contributors to the lack of psychological safety.
The second, Task Sensitivity is the ability of a person to understand the task at hand, assess own capability and assess the support/contribution required from others to get things done. This quality in a healthy proportion also ensures that individuals will collect and work with information relevant to effectively get things done in the favour of the organization.
Finally, the action orientation/decision-making sensitivity, ensures an individual, manager, or leader doesn’t stall progress. They take others along and the input and data available to chart out the best course of action. They follow through every action or decision with what is right to get to the final organizational objective.
These three qualities when operating in tandem will ensure that an environment of psychological safety is created and maintained for everyone. In fact, with these three presents everyone will be able to bring their whole self to work, not just their best self, usually which are the masked selves.
If a performance driven culture is your priority, Psychological Safety must be your foundation. This cannot happen, without the right people who are predisposed or conditioned to interpersonal, task, and action/decision sensitivity. Hope we get there, for the sake of each other, and our organizations. In fact, the best premise to work on and further the cause of psychological safety is collective & organizational growth.