Creating an environment where people can feel psychologically safe and can speak up is fast becoming one of the main topics of conversation as I talk to HR and OD people across all industries. Why is this so? It has long been recognised that if you can create an environment where people can bring all of themselves to work then it is possible to create thriving organisations where the full potential of every person in the business is realised.
Despite a recognition for many years of the value of everyone being able to be fully present at work, we have instead seen a rise in fear in organisations – fear of failure; fear of making a mistake; fear of speaking up – which contributes to people holding back and protecting themselves.
Amy Edmondson from Harvard University uses the term psychological safety to describe "a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves." Psychologically safe environments exude “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up’’.
Why does this matter? Gallup data reveals that just three in 10 U.S. workers strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count. However, by moving that ratio to six in 10 employees, organisations could realise a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.
An internal study conducted by Google found that teams with high rates of psychological safety were better than other teams at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance. They were also more likely to stay with the company.
So why are we moving backwards? Regulation has in some part contributed to this backward movement. Organisations in trying to meet demands of the regulator have over emphasised the need to not make a mistake, to not be the one to put your organisation at risk, but it’s not the whole story.
Busyness, unrealistic targets, 24/7 business means that as leaders efficiency over people remains a reality. As quoted in the Google research “We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”
I would add to this that despite the significant investment in leadership development to date there has not been a significant enough shift towards authentic leadership - helping leaders break the myth of the strong leader who has all the answers. As I interact with leaders across all industries, the shields of invulnerability and protection are still firmly in place and many leaders feel that they need to be to survive. Being open and vulnerable, being true to yourself as a leader is still not socially acceptable and there are still too many masks being worn. Leaders role model behaviour for others and in this way contribute to the lack of psychological safety in organisations.
Given its importance here are four practical things leaders can do to increase psychological safety:
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