Psychological safety is a sense of permission for candor at work.
A work environment that stifles ideas and inhibits people from asking for help or sharing problems can indicate the presence of fear-based leadership, which is detrimental to innovation and culture.
In this interview on the Leadercast Podcast (listen above or via the links at the bottom of this page), we chat with Amy C. Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, about what it means to have a psychologically safe workplace and how leaders can establish it within their organizations.
“Psychological safety is a sense of permission for candor at work,” she defines. “It’s the belief that you can speak up with ideas, concerns, questions, problems, mistakes, and your colleagues or your boss won’t reject or embarrass you for it.”
The idea for Amy’s book originated from her growing awareness of differences in reporting behavior at teaching hospitals (the willingness to speak up about errors and adverse events). She noticed that the belief that it was OK to speak up—or not—took a toll on the hospitals’ performance.
A Psychologically Safe Workplace
Psychological safety in the workplace can often be identified by listening. “You will hear people speaking as often about what they’re struggling with, what’s not going well, as about their successes,” Amy says. People will ask for help or identify a problem. There’s also often a sense of humor about problems and problem-solving that shows goodwill, energy and candor.
In contrast, a psychologically unsafe environment shows itself when problems aren’t mentioned at all. “If you’re not hearing the bad news, it’s probably a sign that people are reluctant to come forward with it—not a sign that it doesn’t exist,” she notes.
Consequences of Psychological Unsafety
The range of consequences from not speaking up is enormous. In hospitals, it can certainly lead to loss of life, as well as the less tangible sense of personal regret. “In between are absolutely preventable business failures,” Amy points out.
A loss of innovation might be hardest of all to measure but could have the greatest impact. “You really can’t have innovation without psychological safety because people aren’t willing to share those out-of-the-box ideas that are a stepping stone to build on,” Amy says.
Someone could have an idea to make a process work even better. Someone could suggest an unworkable plan that a team member modifies successfully. But if the employee doesn’t feel the autonomy to use their voice, their thoughts and ideas never come to light and innovation ceases to happen.
Damages of Fear-Based Leadership
Fear-based leadership is more common than we may think. While nobody imagines that managers come to work hoping to frighten people, few of us investigate beliefs we take for granted about what motivates people to work hard.
Amy names the commonly held belief about fear: “If people aren’t afraid a little bit, they won’t do their best work. So, there’s an implicit belief in the power of fear to motivate.” What fear actually motivates us to do is hide.
Neurologically, a state of fear excites the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for problem-solving, analytical thinking, creativity and even short-term memory formation. “We’re less able to do our best work when we’re in a state of fear,” Amy says.
Fear tactics that insist on particular targets without respect to the uncertainties of life are foolish. They encourage employees to game the system and stifle innovation. On the other hand, a leader who reminds team members of why what we do matters and instills a sense of purpose in the work helps people connect.
Admitting that there’s more to be known sends the message that anyone could have a meaningful idea or observation to contribute.
A Climate of Psychological Safety
No matter where they rank on the totem pole, leaders can contribute immeasurably to a culture that fosters psychological safety. Amy explains that psychological safety is a climate (the interpersonal interactions that are happening in the present) variable within a culture (the widespread rules and norms of an organization). A culture could be psychologically safe but a climate might not be, or vice versa.
“Climate is actually created in the middle—team leaders, project managers, unit directors—it’s the proximal leader, the leader who oversees some interdependent work of a number of people,” she adds. Leaders in the middle of the organization can direct the climate of their teams by supporting the norms of interpersonal safety.
The Role Emotional Intelligence Plays in Psychological Safety
Emotional intelligence can help leaders promote psychological safety through self-awareness and the ability to read others. Leaders with high EQ know to listen more than they speak, pick up on nonverbal cues and encourage others to contribute. “The ability to read body language and nonverbals can let you know when someone looks hesitant, puzzled or concerned,” shares Amy.
What Makes a Leader Worth Following?
“A leader is worth following, first and foremost, because they’re going somewhere you believe makes sense, is important and makes a difference,” Amy says. “Secondarily, you believe in that person’s own sincerity and integrity. You believe that they’re not just in it for themselves, but they’re in it for the sake of the mission.”
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