So Maybe Work Isn’t Supposed to be Demeaning…

Psychological safety is the term used to describe the climate in which people feel safe expressing their ideas without fear of feeling belittled or embarrassed. You would think it is simple, but surprisingly people guard their personal image pretty closely when they fear humiliation.

The ability to ask questions, seek help, or admit to mistakes while others observe is difficult. That difficulty is magnified if they know there is someone who is going to give them a hard time. It is exponentially magnified if it is someone of authority who might give them the hard time.

On the other hand, if the culture is psychologically safe people become more comfortable taking those interpersonal risks, resulting in learning behaviors that benefit the entire organization.

When people admit or bring attention to mistakes, ask for help, or “climb out on a limb” and accept the possibility of failure that comes with experimenting, they run the risk of being perceived as incompetent. Humans self manage this interpersonal risk in order to minimize harm to their self-image, especially with people who are in position of authority or who formally evaluate them.

But here is the concerning part, the easiest way for people to manage this interpersonal risk is to simply avoid engaging in these learning behaviors if they feel the outcome is uncertain.

While in most companies this silence may just result in lost organizational knowledge -which should be concern enough – but in high-risk organizations and operations reluctance to take the interpersonal risk (ask the questions, admit something might be wrong, etc.) may result in an outcome that could be catastrophic.

Amy Edmondson found that in hospitals, reluctance to report mistakes can be especially troubling. The silence created for fear of being seen as “rocking the boat” or questioning someone in authority can have fatal outcomes. The need to impress management and protect one’s professional image is high.  Sadly, “turning a blind eye” is a somewhat safe way to protect that image.

So what about organizations that just want to increase organizational knowledge, the precursor to innovation? In other words, how do we create a psychologically safe workplace?

It starts with leadership, of course. Management must first stifle the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) belittling that may exist. As the title implies, Dr. Robert Sutton’s book, “The No Asshole Rule” nicely sums up the importance of building a civilized work place.

Civility is a learned behavior and for those who didn’t learn it as a child, training in Emotional Intelligence can help. Next, management has to actually encourage employees to take the risk, ask the question, or admit the error. Just opening the cage door isn’t enough to get the timid animal out.

Trust building is a process that unfolds at it’s own biological pace, and patience is key. Interestingly, one of the best ways we have seen to access and build psychological safety is by simply focusing on a more traditional safety program.

Pardon the pun, but safety is a safe place to start.  Begin the efforts by building a program that focuses first on “doing no harm”.  Creating a safe workplace is common ground where everyone can agree, regardless of level of authority or position including employees, top managers, contractors, and unions. Even everyone’s families will agree on the importance of safety. By picking this topic you begin to change what Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) calls a keystone habit.

Keystone habits are habits that change other habits through a domino effect. In this case the habit of identifying safety issues creates employee voice through the ability to speak up about safety issues, or divulge near misses and incidents. But the most important aspect of this is that employees have to be allowed to report these without blame, belittlement, or any response that might cause them to hold back.

A “bring it on” attitude has to be adopted by everyone and most importantly, management.  This might be uncomfortable for some managers, but it is absolutely necessary if creating a psychologically safe workplace is important, valued and viewed as the foundation for creating a “great place to work.”

What will gradually become apparent is by addressing the underlying causes surrounding an incident; employees uncover problems, concerns, and communication issues throughout your organization’s processes. In his book Duhigg uses the example of Paul O’Neill turning Alcoa around just by focusing on safety.

As people report physical hazards, incidents, near misses, etc. they are actually coming forward with learning behaviors. They are saying, “This went wrong”, or “This is a problem.” If they are not psychologically beaten up for reporting these things they will gradually learn that trust exists in the workplace. This allows them to open up to greater interpersonal vulnerability.

If Management takes their ideas and does something with them, that trust gets reinforced. Gradually employees will develop their “voice” and feel more comfortable in other areas besides safety.  These learning behaviors begin to spread as other employees witness their co-workers taking risks and not being punished for it.

Your safety program will improve exponentially and employees will feel comfortable with the newly found learning behaviors.  AND, in the process, a great place to work is fostered, trust is created, collaboration cultivated and knowledge is shared.