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Psychological Safety

(by Melissa L. Schlimm)

Why Psychological Safety matters

If most of the time my bosses didn’t want to hear anything, what did they want? Often they preferred silence and not to shake the status quo or question if what is done is what we should be doing. Often, I would get a pad of pity from my colleagues, sometimes a shoulder shredding “Look Melissa this is how we have always done it…” and occasionally I got into trouble for challenging the status quo. That trouble was always worth it because every other time, me voicing my thoughts contributed to something good. The voice of an employee is mission-critical!

Today, more than ever, success requires people to think on their feet, continuously come up with new ideas, challenge the unspoken, and speak out half-finished thoughts to brainstorm out loud. Partly that is because technology enhances at a fast pace and then there is the Covid-19 effect. Covid-19 caused organizations to move faster than they could have ever imagined. Decisions had to be taken such as developing policies to working from home, new ideas for virtual services implemented, and all of that outside of the normal boundaries of working life. All of that requires an environment in which people feel psychologically safe, which means that:

Psychological safety is a term defined by Professor Amy Edmondson as “a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions or ideas”. She first identified the concept in 1999 and in her book “The Fearless Organization” she shares a story that showcases how the lack of psychological safety can lead to catastrophic events. In 2003 the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere, killing all astronauts. Rodney Rocha, a NASA engineer, had observed that the wing of the space shuttle had been damaged at the launch and when he asked his boss for authorization to view satellite images, Rocha’s request was rejected. In the following mission management team meeting, Rocha didn’t dare to share his concern about the broken wing, which would later be concluded as the reason for the fatal accident of the space shuttle. Rocha felt too low down in the organizations’ hierarchy to speak up at the mission management team meeting.

The evidence for the need for psychological safety is there and it is an opportunity because every voice raised matters and can cause a ripple effect.

What is the impact on psychological safety if we are not able to have a chat leaving the meeting room, talk eye to eye, or have that confidential conversation no one can record?

More than ever psychological safety is needed because virtual work requires that we truly trust in one another’s best intention. We as managers trust that our employees will perform at their best working off the kitchen table and we as employees trust that if my job will be cut, I will get a fair transition offer. We perform at our best if we feel psychologically safe, which leads:

  • to thinking outside the box,
  • to holding each other accountable,
  • to admitting when things go wrong and
  • to taking brave or risky decisions.

The last time

And here is why we will do all of the above when we feel psychologically safe: because we know that there won’t be any repercussions.

Think about the last time you suggested a ‘new’ idea to your team. What would have been different if you knew that your colleagues would not shut you down immediately with the usual “this is not possible” and have an open mind about your idea?

Think about the last time your colleague put you on the spot on your project delay caused by both of you. What would have been different, if he were not afraid to lose his job over his causes for delay and instead felt it is ok to share his part in the project delay?

Think about the last time you had to admit that you did a mistake to your boss. What would have been different if you knew he would not start yelling at you but instead sit down and find a solution with you?

Think about the last time you sat in front of your client and didn’t close the deal. What would have been different, if you would not worry about your job as a result and instead would have had the trust that your boss sees value in you being there, whether or not that deal was closed?

It is a change of response we are seeking and it starts with checking in with ourselves, how we react when we sit on the other side. The question to ask yourself is: am I open to the crazy ideas of my colleagues? Do I admit my mistakes as they happen? Do I go into solution mode when somebody needs help? Do I trust my employees? And if the last time one of these reactions were not how it should be, that is ok, because remember “We all make mistakes”. It is about “What will you do with that newly gained knowledge?”

Trust and a good intention are the pillars for psychological safety and especially in the current ways we are working, virtually, we need to know that our employees, peers, or bosses will have our back. Psychological Safety 2.0 means to be able to:

  • Do things differently
  • Just Nike (do it)
  • Embrace uncertainty
  • Pivot when needed

All of the above, we need to allow to happen as an individual, leader, and organization. It starts with every individual accepting her/his part in the game, especially as a leader and it requires the organization to support the process of building psychosocial safety. We need to allow ourselves to do things differently and encourage each other to think outside the box. This is what we do when we work with teams and you know the amazing part of all of that? It works if all three parties show up.

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