In September 2019, I will be speaking at a conference on the topic of psychological safety: the secret ingredient of top performing teams. It's a topic which I find fascinating, not least because I have lost count of the number of times I have witnessed leaders and managers, undermine the performance of their team (and, on occasion, their entire organisation) by ignoring the basic tenets of psychological safety. A recent example that springs to mind is a junior employee who was told by a senior leader to "know their place".
We often wrongly believe that if we pay people a fair wage they will do a good job and if they don't, it is because they are not competent. Yet, as humans, our emotions play a crucial role in how compelled we feel to take action, collaborate with others or apply ourselves to a task. Research spanning the last few decades suggests that our psychological safety at work plays a significant role in determining our level of performance, but what is it and what can leaders do to cultivate more of it within the workplace?
The basis of psychological safety
The best way to understand the basis of psychological safety is to ask a simple question: how confident would you be to speak up in a work meeting and share an idea, where it may be interpreted by others as being ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive? What about raising concerns over a course of action that you fundamentally disagree with, but where speaking-up risks you alienating yourself? Or owning up to a serious mistake, when your boss isn’t the forgiving type? Or perhaps just being your authentic-self with colleagues?
If your answer to some or all of those questions is that you would most likely keep quiet for fear of negative repercussions, then you will be familiar with what millions of other workers experience on a daily basis. Whether or not you are prepared to speak up in those situations boils down to one key thing: how safe you feel to take interpersonal-risks. If you don’t feel ‘safe’ because you worry there may be negative consequences to speaking up, then the organisation you work for will be haemorrhaging talent. Talent such as lost creativity, innovation, productivity and diversity of thought.
Feeling confident to take-interpersonal risks without fear of negative repercussions is the basis of psychological safety. It is something that too few organisations are paying attention to, yet it is something that should theoretically be a top priority for any organisation looking to realise the potential of its people and its bottom-line. A three year study by Google found that the key determinant of its most successful teams was psychological safety. In fact, psychological safety ranked higher than over 100 other potential factors such as IQ, technical ability and emotional intelligence.
The tenets of psychological safety lie in our evolutionary biology. As human beings, we crave social connection and belonging, together with a sense of safety and security. It is a biological drive that social scientists believe evolved through natural selection, as it would have bolstered our chances of long-term survival. Being ostracised from our tribe would likely leave us isolated and at the mercy of predators and merciless tribes – our chances of survival significantly diminished, and our risk of injury and infection increased.
While it is highly unlikely that social isolation from our 21st century ‘tribe’ would increase our risk of actually being attacked by a predator, our physiological response is still wired on that basis. Working in a psychologically unsafe work environment can trigger our fight or flight response and, with it, a significant drop in cognitive performance and creativity, in addition to longer term health implications. Research has shown that IQ can drop by as much as 20 points under the effects of chronic negative stress, as our brain reallocates resources to tackle the immediate ‘threat’. As for longer-term health implications, research published in 2015 found that actual or perceived social isolation was as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
When we don’t feel safe, we are also far less likely to foster collaboration, as we do not trust those around us, preferring self-preservation instead. Diversity of thought is quickly lost, as people genuinely fear the negative repercussions of speaking up, irrespective of whether what they have to say could add significant value or avert others making a costly mistake. You only need to look as far as Enron (2001), Lehman Brothers (2008), Toshiba (2015), Volkswagen (2015) or United Airlines (2017) to understand the impact that poor psychological safety has on the performance of individuals and the bottom-line of an organisation.
Research consistently shows that organisations with greater psychological safety have higher performing teams, more engaged workforces, happier and healthier employees, in addition to greater overall business success. Yet, business practices can be all too quick to erode psychological safety. Practices such as redundancies, annual performance appraisals and performance improvement plans can all serve to undermine people’s perception of psychological safety at work.
The mindset adopted by leaders can also influence psychological safety. For example, research conducted by Stanford Professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues with Fortune 1,000 companies, found that employees in growth mindset cultures were 47% more likely to agree with statements about having more trust in their company. Conversely, those in fixed mindset cultures were 41% more likely to believe that their companies were rife with unethical behaviour. The study supports Dweck’s previous research findings, which found that those with a fixed mindset were significantly more likely to cheat, lie or act dishonestly. For someone with a fixed mindset, it is all about maximising their strengths and covering up their perceived shortcomings, because they believe that there is nothing that they can do to improve them.
Growth mindset leaders on the other hand are far more likely to foster collaboration and provide the psychological safety required for innovation and risk taking. The same Fortune 1,000 study conducted by Dweck and her colleagues detailed above, found just that. Those employees in growth mindset companies were 65% more likely to agree that their companies support risk-taking and were 49% more likely to agree that their companies foster innovation.
In a similar vein, a leader’s ability to embrace vulnerability can help those within their team feel safe. We are all human and with that realisation comes the acknowledgement that we are imperfect, that we make mistakes, that we cannot possibly have all the answers and that, on occasion, we do struggle. To pretend or believe otherwise lacks authenticity or self- awareness. Despite this, leaders rarely show vulnerability. Possibly for fear that it will make them look weak in front of their peers or their teams.
Vulnerable leadership has the power to transform the culture of an organisation. A vulnerable leader is someone who is comfortable not having all the answers, is someone who actively solicits the perspectives and thoughts of those around them, and is someone who does not have to be the first with an idea or the first one to answer.
Psychological Safety should be a top priority for those organisations wanting to unleash the true potential of their people and that of their organisation. While wellbeing has risen up the corporate agenda in recent years, the focus has tended to be far too narrow, with initiatives such as mindfulness, resilience and yoga taking centre stage. While positive, the right mindset and rituals can take you only so far. At some point, organisations will need to look more closely at tackling the elephant in the room, namely the thornier and trickier issue of culture and psychological safety.