I am convinced that managers need to prioritise creating a culture of psychological safety at work. In The Fearless Organization author Amy Edmondson – a professor at Harvard Business School – shows how creating psychological safety in the workplace enables learning, innovation and growth that drives outstanding business results. The alternative can be pretty toxic.
How to Recognise a Psychologically Safe Culture
In a fearless organisation people act responsibly, courageously and know they can fail. They are not scared to speak up. They are willing to take the risk of candour and ‘tell it how it is’. They fear holding back their full participation more than they fear sharing a potentially sensitive, threatening or wrong idea. This is because fearless organisations minimise interpersonal fear and maximise organisational performance.
The Consequence of Low Psychological Safety
To understand why psychological safety is so important, let’s take two examples. A newly qualified nurse is doing the rounds with a senior doctor. She is on the cusp of recommending a new drug to help a premature baby’s lungs develop. Hesitating for a split second because a colleague had been criticised by the doctor, she remains silent. The doctor spins on his heels – already walking to the next incubator. Had he asked: “What’s on your mind?”, a life-saving action could have taken place.
In another context, management put pressure on an engineering team in a culture that only listened to good news. As a result, the engineers don’t speak up enough and were railroaded into agreeing to launch. But they know that frost damage to the fragile “O” rings could be dangerous. Sadly, management said: “we’re Go for launch.” The ‘O’ rings failed, the boosters blew up and the entire crew of the space shuttle perished.
Amy Edmondson gives dozens of examples of good and bad working cultures from more than twenty years of research. She then explains how to create a fearless organisation in your own workplace. To do so, managers need to learn how to invite participation from staff and how to respond positively. They must know what to say, and how to say it. The book concludes with a leadership self-assessment tool so you can track your own performance as a manager.
I think all organisations can benefit from psychological safety. If employees communicate candidly and responsibly, that dramatically improves risk management, drives innovation and builds a powerfully constructive culture. Psychological safety addresses every CEO’s deepest worry: “Are people really telling me the truth about what’s going on?”
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