When It’s Safe to Speak Up, Everyone Benefits

Article main image
Nov 10, 2017

Fear is a powerful emotion. It makes us feel defenseless. When we are under attack, we become more alert. Vulnerability heightens our focus.

As Seth Godin says, defenseless is the best choice for those seeking to grow.

But, most people, become defensive when they are afraid. They stop listening to reality. And just want to survive. That’s how most people feel at their workplace.

What if organizations could remove that fear? Or, in other words, create a safe space where no one could get fired for speaking up.

 “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.”Stephen Covey

Your team may be afraid of getting fired, too. But they won’t tell you. They probably stopped sharing their best ideas a long time ago. Many employees can’t keep up with being criticized and ridiculed by others. Your team, like many others, is afraid of speaking up.

Stress Is All Too Common

Before you think your company is immune to this condition, hear me out. Work stress is on the rise, affecting 60% of American employees.

That means that “top performers” are also affected by the lack of a safe space. Talented people want to work in a space where they can thrive. Not providing a psychologically safe environment is how organizations fire smart people. People are replaceable, but not everyone is easy to replace.

An unsafe or toxic culture harms not just employee retention, but your bottom line too.

Some studies predict that the cost of replacing a salaried employee can cost as much as twice their annual salary, especially for an executive-level employee. The cost includes the hiring process and training but, most importantly the impact on the culture.

When a top gun employee leaves, the rest start questioning what’s going on.

Providing a safe space is everything to protect your people.

A Culture That Matters: Psychological Safety

“A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.”Simon Sinek

There’s a misconception about organizational culture. Most leaders focus just on one aspect of it: cognitive culture  —  the behaviors, values and beliefs. But the most significant component can’t be captured in a PowerPoint: the emotional culture.

The health of your workplace’s emotional culture is what matters. It impacts everything from motivation to burnout, employee engagement, and creativity. Every organization has an emotional culture, even those that don’t allow employees to express freely.

 “Psychological safety describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves,” Amy Edmondson wrote in 1999.

‘‘It’s a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ the Harvard Business School professor wrote.

Do your employees feel they can speak freely?

Google’s Quest For the Perfect Team

“Psychological safety: ‘A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ — Professor Amy Edmondson

I’m not talking about happiness, or perks, or lowering the bar. Providing psychological safety builds the trust necessary to deal with tensions and to have tough conversations too.

Several years ago, Google embarked on a quest to discover what makes the perfect team. The company’s top executives believed, like most of us, that combining the best people was the answer.

Google doesn’t take anything lightly: its research team analyzed decades of academic data. What role do rewards play? How does personal affinity matter? And how do management styles affect team’s performance?

The key finding took everyone by surprise: Success is the consequence of the “space” provided, rather than team composition. Psychological safety is what makes or breaks a successful team.

A safe space manifests through two behaviors, according to a New York Times report:

  • “Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”: If everyone gets a chance to talk and participate, teams do well. When the leader or just a few team members dominate the conversation, the collective intelligence declines.
  • “Average social sensitivity”:Team members are empathetic, they can read how others feel based on expressions and non-verbal cues. They realize when someone was feeling upset or left out.

Does your organization have a psychologically safe culture? One where no one could get fired for speaking up.

Five Ways to Start Promoting Psychological Safety

Transparency is the foundation for clear communication and trust, as I wrote in my book, Stretch for Change. How can you expect a team to be more experimental when they are worried about being judged or punished?

1. Encourage different opinions and dissent

It feels counterintuitive, right? To build safety, shouldn’t a group be “aligned?” Alignment doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on everything. Different opinions and perspectives are what moves teams forward.

As Google discovered, great teams are where everyone has a voice and they have a chance to share their thoughts.

A productive dissent makes ideas better. It’s easier to get a team aligned after a discussion than when they are not allowed to express their points of view.

2. Promote transparent behaviors

Communicating results on a regular basis encourages accountability. You want a team that feels it’s part of the success, as well as one that jumps right into action when things are getting hard.

Clear communication is just one aspect of transparency. Removing hidden agendas and unclear motivations makes a huge difference.

Take performance reviews, for example. I’ve seen many organizations use them as a way to justify decisions rather than inform them.

When something is not working, fix it. And be clear about the real reasons with the rest of the team. People know when their bosses are giving them excuses or not sharing their true motivations.

When managers’ behaviors are not transparent they build fear rather than trust.

3. Bring back our souls to work

When I facilitate change workshops, I see how eager participants are to bring their human side to work. It seems that “being professional” is holding them back. Your team members have many other assets and passions that you could benefit from  —  that is if you let them behave more than just as professionals.

When we remove titles and hierarchies from the room, it’s exciting to see the transformation; these business-type adults experiment with doing things that go way beyond their level of comfort.

Innovation happens when we peel away all of the layers.

4. Learn to walk in someone else’s shoes

Being empathetic about what’s going on with other team members can eliminate a lot of conflicts.

Sometimes procrastination or lack of interest has nothing to do with an employee not being committed. We all have our families and personal problems. We cannot expect our team member to be immune to personal issues.

That’s why we recommend providing an “empathy moment” before a meeting starts. “What has got your attention?” is an effective question to promote sharing what’s troubling everyone’s mind.

It’s not a therapy session. But if you know what’s going on with your colleagues, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.

5. Reframe your relationship with mistakes

We are all expected to be flawless. But we are not.

Some managers expect their employees to be perfect. In most cases, all they seed is fear. Their subordinates will seek to please them rather than to do their best.

Fear, paradoxically, generates more mistakes. Instead of using their own instinct or common sense, employees try to read their boss’ mind. And in doing so, they will drop the ball over and over.

Constant pressure to improve performance can trigger fears of underperforming and of making mistakes.

To create a culture of experimentation, not only requires to eradicate fear, but also to realize that mistakes are a necessary component of learning.

Before You Go


Psychological safety is critical to improving your team’s performance. By developing a safe space, employees will feel more confident to experiment rather than being afraid of being criticized or rejected.

How safe is your workplace? Do you promote a culture of transparency? Does your organization measure how employees feel about safety and trust? Share your thoughts.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!