How important is it to have a work environment that encourages employees to voice their concerns?
Consider the following examples.
David is an associate at a professional services firm. He is part of a project team for an important client led by one of the most well-known partners in the firm. In the morning meeting, the team makes a quick but consequential decision for the client. David is a bit surprised because he thinks the data suggests another route, but he’s hesitant to state his opinion. After reviewing the data, he still thinks the team may have missed something, but he is worried that if he speaks up, he might not get invited onto another project. He decides to stay quiet.
Meanwhile, Kevin is a technician in a hospital operating room. During the close of a routine operation with a high-status surgeon, Kevin counts the sponges and notices that one seems to be missing. He is not entirely sure, but he immediately notifies the lead surgeon of the possibility that there may be a sponge remaining in the abdominal cavity of the patient. The surgeon is tired and eager to complete this final surgery of the day, but immediately checks the patient cavity in search of the sponge.
Why does Kevin voice his concern while David hesitates?
David spends his time fearing negative consequences of voicing his concern and questioning the validity of his point. This sense of perceiving or fearing negative consequences based on taking interpersonal risk is what organizational scholars call a lack of psychological safety. Studies have shown that a team’s level of psychological safety can affect teamwork and the overall health of an organization.
Building on a concept originated in research in the 1960s, a Harvard psychologist named Amy Edmondson conducted a study in the mid-1990s to understand the factors that affect errors in administering drugs to hospitalized patients. She interviewed a range of health care providers — nurses, physicians, and pharmacists — across eight teams from two urban teaching hospitals. Contrary to her hypotheses, teams where members felt safe to examine and report their behavior had more errors.
At first, she scratched her head: how can these findings make sense?
Then she discovered that the best teams were admitting to errors and discussing them more often than other groups did. These teams didn’t want to make mistakes, of course. But they weren’t afraid to say aloud that they had. The best performing teams felt psychologically safe with one another. They weren’t afraid of the negative interpersonal consequences of speaking up, so they spoke up when they noticed an error. They weren’t as daunted by the worrying about the negative consequences of stating their opinion, be it a decrease in their self-image, status, or career trajectory.
Two decades of research since then have shown that if people perceive a safe harbor, they are more likely to work well with one another by sharing information and ideas, suggesting improvements, and exploring new avenues for the enterprise. Employees need to know that their well-intentioned actions will not lead to punishment or rejection by their organization and their team.
Work environments that are psychologically safe not only produce strong organizational performance, but they are also often described as more satisfying places within which to work.
It turns out that leaders are particularly important in the presence or absence of psychological safety. There are three main ways that leaders can facilitate psychological safety on the job.
1. Frame work as an environment for growth
Ideally, not only are good leaders able to hire and retain capable people, but those people become even more skilled and capable at their work over time. The organization and the individual have a shared interest in promoting skill and capacity development. As each employee becomes individually more capable of handling complex work with less supervision, the company needs to devote fewer resources to supporting and overseeing the work of that person.
Over time, that person may come to supervise the work of others, thereby moving from being an individual producer into the role of management and leadership of the work of others. In a workplace that encourages growth and development, employees can take the long view, looking to increase skills over time, rather than just looking to check the box of task performance.
2. Model openness and fallibility
No one is perfect. Why should anyone pretend that they are?
Having an expectation of perfectionism only makes others look at you as unrealistic, unattainable, or inhumane. Showing that leaders make mistakes, can take responsibility for them, and make adjustments in their way of thinking and behaving is crucial for others to understand that learning from failure is part of the process of excellence.
Part of getting better means risking errors, learning how to avoid those types of errors in the future and learning from the experience. Too often, is it difficult to see how leaders have learned along the way. In an organization that wishes to promote an employee who takes initiative and learns from experience, it is important for that employee to see the process in action.
3. Embrace inclusivity and curiosity
Leaders can do this by asking questions, and inviting and appreciating others’ contributions. Leaders can show that people are not kicked off the teams for making a mistake based on a risk worth taking.
On the contrary, an effective leader invites people to bring up problems and tough issues and to take the rick to innovate. They encourage thinking differently or outside of the box. They value and utilize unique skills and talent.
All of us can take a page from the psychological safety playbook and try to create cultures of openness. If we stick our necks out there (maybe a little each time), if we show willingness to contribute of our ideas and actions, if we ask for input and help, and if we give others the benefit of the doubt, we might not only model for others that they should try the same but we will also likely be more engaged at work.