Psychologically Safe Cultures Need Courageous Leaders

During a sales meeting, an eager, young employee shared an idea. Two seasoned sales representatives looked at each other and snickered.

In many organizations, this would be business as usual. In those cultures, employees feel free to mock, ridicule, or poke fun at others with impunity. If challenged, they simply dismiss the challenge with, “I’m just kidding,” and know that they can get away with that “explanation.”

The result?

Employees are less likely to offer opinions and suggestions, or engage in the kind of thinking that could lead to significant incremental improvements and game-changing innovation.

When mockery and put downs are accepted, employees are also less willing to speak up in meetings and admit they don’t understand what is being said. Instead they nod their heads knowingly, and then later try to get up to speed in the hallway, or try to execute a plan they don’t fully understand, stumbling and fumbling their way, and slowing down the roll-out because of mistakes.

Speaking of mistakes, when being ridiculed, scolded, or dressed down in public are considered acceptable behavior in an organization, employees are obviously far less likely to admit to mistakes. They will also spend far too much time engaging in CYA activities.

I remember years ago working with a large pharmaceutical company where employees shared how much unnecessary time they had to take when making presentations to the senior team, creating PowerPoint decks that covered every possible point and question their chief medical officer might ask, because they wanted to avoid the public tongue-lashing he was infamous for delivering. They expressed anger and frustration about what they knew was a poor use of their time, but was necessary if they wanted to avoid public humiliation.

What it means

Google’s intensive study of high-functioning teams revealed that the key ingredient separating high-functioning from low-functioning teams was psychological safety.

As described by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is, “A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking‘‘ and that members have “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’

For psychological safety to exist, leaders must model it and create boundaries that cannot be crossed with impunity. It is also important for all employees to understand which behaviors cultivate or destroy psychological safety and have the skills to create it.

Because psychological safety is created or destroyed one conversation at a time each day “in the trenches” it’s not something that comes out of a one-day seminar. It is something that not only requires professional development, but also coaching and a fierce commitment to demonstrate it and call out behaviors that compromise people’s sense of safety.

Modeling the behavior

Back to our young sales person who was laughed at for sharing his “out of the box” idea.

How did the leader of the organization, Walt deal with it?

He stood up and asked: “Why are you laughing?”

Instantly, the room became silent.

The president continued: “Because what I just saw was someone trying to contribute to our conversation. You understand why I would rather have that; why I would rather have people who choose to contribute than those who laugh at them?”

In sharing this story to me, Justin, who was new to the company when this happened, observed: “It was tense and awkward for a bit after. But at the same time, it felt like there was a standard clearly set. There was no denying it. There was also a direction set. We had gone off course briefly. We had deviated from our culture and then got back on track with his calling out that behavior.”

“When I left the room, I felt this sense of pride; you could see the culture being communicated. I felt proud of being part of an organization with this kind of culture. It was raw, it was awkward, and it was real. It wasn’t a PowerPoint presentation saying ‘these are our values’.”

Rather than being told what his employer believed in, he got to see those values being demonstrated and people being held accountable for not upholding those values.

How to make it safe to speak up

Because many people have not seen the behaviors that foster psychological safety modeled in childhood or in our culture, it’s important to operationalize this term, and teach and coach people how to behave in ways that foster this critical element of high performance. Here are some suggestions on how to do that.

1. Have employees identify the qualities and behaviors

To help people understand the concept of psychological safety, have them think about the characteristics and behaviors of people around whom they:

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  • Can be unguarded with and not weigh the pros and cons of whether to share something because of the likely response of that person.
  • Feel comfortable bringing up difficult issues with, or giving feedback to, and don’t have fear of being attacked or retaliated against later.
  • Don’t worry about the person responding with immediate judgment, criticism, unwanted advice, or lecturing.

2. Establish “no shaming” ground rules

Ask your team to come up with ground rules, such as:

  • No mocking, ridiculing, or put-downs
  • No jokes at other’s expense
  • When disagreeing, focus on what’s wrong with the idea and not what’s allegedly wrong with the person with the idea.

3. Foster a culture of curiosity and inquiry versus advocacy

In many countries, children are taught in school that having the answer is the key to reward and recognition. Having the right answer and being right is reinforced in many organizations with highly competitive cultures where everyone is jockeying for position as the brightest one in the room.

Add to this the ego-driven desire for prestige and stature that drives much behavior in the workplace, and you see why people are far more motivated to push for their ideas — advocacy — than have interest in other’s ideas.

High performing teams and organizations balance inquiry and advocacy. They encourage people to speak up and advocate for their ideas and strongly value curiosity — “Seek first to understand.” They recognize what you have undoubtedly noticed throughout your career: In meetings where everyone focuses only on promoting their point of view and not considering others, innovation and execution suffer.

Conversely, when team members show genuine interest in other’s perspectives and ideas, idea-generation flourishes, potential roadblocks get identified and avoided, and the team grows even stronger and more effective over time.

4. Model the courage to speak up 

The president of the company in our story did not just demonstrate an awareness of behaviors that destroy psychological safety, he also demonstrated the courage to call out the people engaging in them. While his position of authority obviously made it easier for him to do this, he still could have shirked his responsibility.

To cultivate greater psychological safety in your organization, you need all of your managers to not only model it, but also encourage all employees to practice speaking up, and to be supported them when they do.

It’s like the physical safety culture at Tilson, a Portland, Maine company that installs cell phone towers and fiber optic cables throughout the world. Many of their workers engage in the high-risk job of climbing towers. Thus, practicing safe work habits is especially critical in their organization. Josh Broder, the CEO of Tilson makes it clear to all employees that anyone has the power to shut down a process if they detect unsafe practices.

Broder, a military veteran, likens their culture to the “we’re all in this together” mindset of the military where an enlisted person or junior officer was empowered to, and expected to, confront a superior if their boot was unlaced or doing anything that else that was not “squared away.”

While you might find it inconceivable that your organization would welcome people lower in the hierarchy challenging those higher up when they act in ways that damage psychological safety, maybe your goal could be to get people to challenge their peers when they do the same.

Create a psychologically safe culture

If you come from a culture that has tolerated dysfunctional and disrespectful behavior, it will take time and education to help employees understand what psychological safety is, how it is created and damaged, and how to skillfully address it. Only then are they likely to hold each other accountable, and do so in a way that strengthens your culture, rather than create more conflict and less psychological safety.

If you’re an HR professional or manager, share this with your fellow managers and see if they resonate with it and want to create greater psychological safety in your organization.

If you are a manager or supervisor, share this article with your team and use it to catalyze a conversation around how team members interact and what they can do to create a more psychologically safe — and therefore more productive — team.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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