How Psychological Safety Unlocks Innovation

7 minutes • Sep 27, 2021Culture

It’s something we’ve all felt at one point or another. You noticed or felt something was off, wanted to speak up, but then didn’t. 

Why? Because you were afraid of how the other person, be it your coworker, manager, parent or neighbor would take it. Unsure about how your feedback or idea would be received, you decide it's safer to say nothing and move on with your day. 

What is this instant “take the high road” phenomenon? A lack of psychological safety

What is Psychological Safety? 

According to the Harvard Business Review, psychological safety is defined as “the belief that one can speak up without the risk of punishment or humiliation.” In the workplace, psychological safety helps teams make higher-quality decisions, establish healthier relationships, innovate more, and drive tasks forward more effectively. 

However, some people might confuse the concept of psychological safety with simply being allowed to say whatever you want, and the recipients must be “nice.” Psychological safety is about candor; about letting everyone at work be open and direct, so they can ask the hard questions, such as: 

  • Are we measuring the right data? 

  • Are we selling the right product to the right people? 

  • Are we giving our customers the best possible experience? 

  • Is there a more efficient way to approach this process? 

  • Are we living up to our company values? 

When employees feel psychologically safe, they’ll ask these types of questions without fear of being reprimanded. The answers to these questions can radically change your business for the better, if your people are empowered to have these conversations.  

What are the benefits? 

Psychological safety is a key ingredient of today’s fast-moving, innovating, and successful companies. Employees who feel psychologically safe will be more willing to push the bar for themselves, their colleagues, and their leadership team, putting the company in a stronger position to thrive. 

The Research Backs Up Its Benefits  

Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School who’s renowned for her research on psychological safety, once stated that employees who feel psychologically safe are “more interested in learning, excellence, and genuinely connecting with others than in looking good.” 

Consider this: in 2017, Gallup found that only three in 10 U.S. workers agreed that their opinions “seem to count” at work. Gallup concluded that if that statistic became six in 10 employees, organizations would see some major benefits: 

  • 27% less turnover 

  • 40% fewer safety incidents 

  • 12% higher productivity 

Here’s another eye-opening finding. A few years ago, Google’s people operations team held more than 200 interviews with its employees and analyzed over 180 of its teams. They concluded that five dynamics (psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work) were the key attributes of its successful teams. And out of those five dynamics, psychological safety “was far and away the most important” and was the “underpinning of the other four.” 

Without It, There Can Be Tragic Consequences 

Without psychological safety, employees can suffer from various issues, including lower productivity and a lack of authentic work relationships. But the scary reality is that a lack of psychological safety can have horrific, even deadly, consequences.

One example is Boeing. Boeing workers were afraid of losing their jobs if they spoke up about their concerns regarding the 737 Max models—and that led to two plane crashes that killed hundreds. Had those Boeing workers felt empowered to speak up, these tragedies might not have happened.  

Another infamous example is what happened at Theranos. According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, members of the Theranos leadership team were “unwilling even to acknowledge concerns that were obvious to many of their engineers.” That resulted in some patients getting inaccurate blood test results. If the leaders of Theranos had taken the time to hear their engineers out, they perhaps could have avoided putting patients’ health at risk, as well as the company’s eventual downfall.

Unlock the Best Ideas 

Here’s something to think about: What’s the point of recruiting the best people if they work in an environment where they can’t speak their mind? 

If employees feel like it's easier to “just agree and move on” to avoid being talked down to, made fun of or intimidated, your company will miss out on the magic of new, outside-the-box thinking. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every idea employees will suggest will be a good one. But by voicing even bad ideas, others are able to speak up to help shape a more promising process or product direction for example.

Getting started with Psychological Safety in your Workplace

Building a culture of psychological safety isn’t something you can accomplish overnight, nor is it a process with a beginning and endpoint (it’s ever-evolving). However, you can kick off the process with a few key steps. 

But before we dive into those steps, let’s go back to our favorite researcher on the topic, Amy Edmondson. She notes that it’s “powerful” when those at the top management levels of a company model “the behaviors that give rise to psychological safety.” That’s why you should encourage your managers and other company leaders to practice these behaviors first so that they can lead by example. 

Re-train your Managers

Start fresh by holding a workshop for the managers of your organization to all learn what Psychological safety is, why it's going to benefit the business, and how they can get started as soon as possible,  leading their teams in a new and candid way.

Edmondson recommends a three-pronged approach. Managers should begin team conversations by making sure everyone understand why everyone’s input counts. 

Next, she says that managers should be proactive about how to get employees to speak up. For example, the manager  can ask targeted open-ended questions, such as “What potential pitfalls do any of you see with our product roadmap?” 

Finally, Edmondson advises that managers “respond appreciatively” when employees speak up, even if what they have to say is negative. She stresses, however, that an appreciative response doesn’t necessarily equate to a happy response. Instead, it means that the manager acknowledges that voicing those concerns or asking a question took courage. 

Welcome Curiosity

Curiosity is the spark that helps new and different ideas come to life. When managers motivate and encourage their employees to ask questions and challenge old ways of thinking, their teams will be much more likely to develop innovative solutions. 

Curiosity also extends to how managers should strive to interact with employees. Specifically, they should come to employees from a place of curiosity instead of criticism if they have questions about a particular setback or harmful behavior. For instance, if an employee didn’t hit a project milestone, the manager can ask, “I see that you didn’t hit the most recent milestone in our project. I’m guessing something at work or home impacted your ability to do so; do you want to sit down and talk about it?” 

Promote Healthy Conflict

Conflict is inevitable at every company. It’s impossible (and unhealthy!) to avoid it. Since there’s no way around it, a good manager knows how to guide conflict in a way that produces new and creative solutions to the same old problems.

Some ways to promote healthy conflict include communicating assertively (vs. aggressively), focusing on issues instead of people, and striving to reach understanding rather than agreement.

For example: Instead of an agitated, “You’re not listening to me!” a more candid and effective approach would be, “Would you prefer we talk at a different time? It’s hard for me to concentrate when you interrupt what I’m trying to say.”.

By openly acknowledging and addressing healthy conflict, teams can minimize the chances of negative emotions festering and blocking them from having authentic collaboration and healthy debates.

Practice Transparency at All Levels 

Whether it’s the intern or the CEO, everyone at the company should understand the power of transparency. Transparency involves admittedly owning up to mistakes and failures, and then asking for feedback. 

For example, if the VP of Marketing realizes she made the wrong call on how much to spend on a campaign, she should feel safe to own up to it and share what she learned instead of brushing it under the rug. This honesty will help employees respect her even more and will lead to an open discussion on what can be done differently to help the next campaign succeed. 

Another essential element of transparency is access to knowledge, whether that’s gaining historical information on a customer, figuring out who’s who at the organization, or simply determining who on the team has a common interest. Creating this level of transparency leads to more authentic relationships, and can be generated through the use of the right org chart software

Accept the Blending of the Professional and Personal 

Especially since the onset of the pandemic, our professional and personal lives have become especially integrated. 

Traditionally, managers have encouraged candor on their teams with a strict focus on work. After all, sharing personal information can come with real and significant risks, including legal issues around asking the wrong personal questions and the potential for bias. 

However, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, teams around the globe have had to talk about things that were previously considered off-limits or uncomfortable at best, such as child care, mental health, and the daily challenges of working from home. 

These conversations should continue even as the situation improves in parts of the world. And, if it’s not already happening, these conversations can touch on lighter-hearted topics as well. Managers, for example, can bring up these lighter topics at the start of their one-on-ones with direct reports before diving into more serious open-ended questions

These personal conversations help managers understand what each employee is going through, as well as their values. With that information, managers can structure work in a way that helps each employee have the most positive experience possible, bringing out the best in the team. 

Measuring if Psychological Safety Works

As your company works toward building a culture of psychological safety, you should also periodically measure to what extent employees are feeling psychologically safe. 

A good way to do this is through your pulse survey. Some questions you can ask your employees include: 

  • Do you feel like your ideas are heard and considered? 

  • Do you feel like we have inefficient processes that have a better solution?

  • Do you feel like your team truly listens to you when you voice your thoughts? 

  • Have you ever held back on an idea or concern for fear of being dismissed or not being taken seriously? 

  • Have you ever felt uncomfortable asking your manager for help? 

Ideally, you should enable employees to write open-ended responses as a follow-up to these questions. Remember to share the insights of your surveys in your All-Hands meeting. If 76% of the company reports that they don’t feel like their ideas are heard and considered, work with your senior leadership team right away to come up with an action plan for change. 

At your next all Hands, thank your employees for taking the survey seriously. Explain that you heard their feedback and share your action plan (that you and your leadership team created) for change. From there, keep pulsing for a few weeks and months to see if you can measure some level of improvement on the issue. If not, keep working on finding new and creative ways to fix the issue. 

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