Listening to Your Team Doesn’t Matter If They Won’t Speak Up

We all want passionate employees. We want them to care about their jobs and go that extra mile for our company. We also want them to have the confidence to speak up if they think it’s necessary — whether it’s to question a given workplace process or ask a question about the nature of their SMART objectives. Of course, not all employees will stand up and make themselves be heard. So what makes some employees suffer in silence while others are emboldened to stand out from the crowd? The answer is psychological safety.

But what is psychological safety? Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, coined the term in a 1999 journal article. It is generally defined as:

“A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

A psychologically safe workplace cultivates a work environment where team members have the freedom to speak out. This environment thrives on mutual respect and encourages co-workers to share their ideas and thoughts without the fear of being shot down or ignored. The obvious effects of psychological safety are better employee wellbeing and mental health. But there is a whole host of benefits to be reaped from cultivating a psychologically safe working environment: interpersonal risk-taking; innovation and new ideas; and high levels of employee engagement. Add all this together and you have huge potential for performance and development.

There are hundreds of small but significant ways managers can improve the level of psychological safety in their workplace, but perhaps the most important are the three below. Implement these changes and you’ll quickly notice a difference in the confidence and competence of your team.

1.  Close the say-do gap

The say-do gap is the distance between what you say you will do as a team leader and what you actually do. It’s the gap between your promises and your actions: the greater it is, the more likely your employees are to distrust you. Eventually, your employees will stop speaking up or asking for what they need because they don’t have any faith you’ll take any practical steps to help them.

The key is to make sure you’re actively listening to your team members — giving your employees a voice is a baseline requirement. Ask your employees for feedback and act on it. This doesn’t mean you need to put every idea into practice. But if you say you are going to do something you should do it, whether that’s holding a meeting or introducing a new company-wide process. The more you follow through on your promises with visible actions, the more you narrow your say-do gap. As a result, employees will have more faith in you.

2. Learn from failure

Nobody is perfect. We’re all human beings and we all make mistakes. Companies with high levels of psychological safety cultivate a working environment where failure is accepted as (occasionally!) inevitable.

This isn’t to say that psychologically safe companies accept lower standards of performance and productivity — far from it. In fact, Google conducted a four-year study into team performance and discovered that psychological safety is the number one predictor of team success. This is because psychologically safe cultures encourage employees to open up about their mistakes so lessons can be learned. This promotes innovation and, ultimately, creates stronger organizations.

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The importance of psychological safety (and the value of making mistakes) can be seen from the results of a study carried out by Prof. Edmondson, who found that high-performing teams were actually prone to more mistakes than average teams — or, at least, that’s what the data seemed to suggest. Digging a little deeper she find that better teams don’t make more mistakes: they’re simply more able and willing to discuss them. They create a climate of openness, which allows them to report on mistakes, get to the bottom of problems and streamline processes.

3. Introduce regular check-ins

Put yourself in the shoes of your employees. Would you be likely to question a problematic workplace process or admit to struggling with a particular goal if your manager was an intimidating authority figure you barely saw? If your only interactions with your employees are pressure-fueled yearly appraisals, your team members will not have the opportunity to build a trusting relationship with you.

A surefire way of creating and improving levels of psychological safety is to improve the flow of communication within your workplace. Managers should be having regular catch-ups with their employees, during which time feedback can be exchanged, coaching can be given and goals can be clarified. Though this might sound like a big time commitment, you’ll soon discover that frequent check-ins are extremely time-efficient and you’ll be rewarded with a psychologically safe workplace.

Stuart Hearn is a leading performance management specialist who has been working in the HR sector for over 20 years. He is passionate about moving performance management forward and is currently CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software system. He previously worked for Sony Music Publishing and was a co-founder of PlusHR.

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