Psychological Safety-Does your company provide enough of it?

I read a great article recently entitled ‘The Competitive Imperative of Learning’ by Amy C. Edmondson. If you want to read the article in full then click here. The premise of the piece was how important a culture of learning, as opposed to operational efficiency, was to long-term success in business.

I was particularly attracted to the following quote:

“My research on why people withhold constructive ideas in the workplace suggests that…organizations must fulfill one big prerequisite: They need to foster psychological safety (emphasis mine). This means ensuring that no one is penalized if they ask for help or admit a mistake. Psychological safety is crucial, especially in organizations where knowledge constantly changes, where workers need to collaborate, and where those workers must make wise decisions without management intervention. It’s built on the premise that no one can perform perfectly in every situation when knowledge and best practice are moving targets.

What this means is that for organizations to be successful, they need to foster environments where people can do a number of different things-present ideas, voice opinions, work on important projects-without feeling there will be a backlash as a result. This doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that people can’t fight in a professional manner. Rather, it means that, with the right structure in place, the best ideas and initiatives will have a greater chance of making it out of people’s heads and ultimately into the customers hands.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But do we have the right environments in place?

Psychological safety (and the lack of) can manifest itself in a lot of different ways. For example:

  • the quiet guy at the meeting-is he that way because he doesn’t have anything worthwhile to contribute or because he’s intimidated?
  • the “nodder” during a feedback session-you know the kind. He/she nods or says “uh-huh” at the appropriate moments during the meeting but doesn’t contribute anything worthwhile to the conversation. Is it because they don’t care or they don’t feel their opinion is valued?
  • the exit interview-every HR pro has a mostly funny, sometimes horrifying exit interview story. Often it’s the “Steady Eddy” who, when he’s halfway out the door, decides to unload all of his emotional baggage about the company he’s leaving on you. While most of the time their rants can be dismissed, you have to ask, “Why did they wait until they were leaving? Why didn’t they share some of this while they were still here?”
  • the shouters-they are always in each others faces, pointing out mistakes and shortcomings (sometimes politely, sometimes not). Yet because the tension produced is channeled towards organizational success and not personal attacks they manage to consistently produce excellent results.

I believe that psychological safety will be an important issue for employees, especially in 2010. The changes that they underwent in the last year (RIFs, budget cuts, reduction in benefits) have them questioning their loyalty to the companies they work for. So, if their cultural environments don’t foster ways to allow good employees to do more than transactional work then I suspect people are going to be leaving for the first available opportunity.

What do you think of the concept of psychological safety? How can organizations promote this in order to retain and motivate their workforce? Leave a comment!

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