“Fear is your worst enemy. Risk is your best friend.” -Gurbaksh Chahal
Although the concept has been around for over 50 years, psychological safety owes its recent popularity to Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor who defines it as “a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up, sharing concerns, questions or ideas.” Her recent book, The Fearless Organization, stresses the role of leadership in creating such a climate.
While this is important, the real question is how to bring psychological safety to the ‘street level’ so that individuals and teams can behave within a safe environment that allows them to think, speak and act without fear (within the limits of reason, ethics and good manners). After all, leaders guide and provide the vision, but they cannot control how people behave towards each other in an organization.
The answer is: skills and practice.
Psychological safety requires skills and behaviors that allow the members of the organization to provide to each other and to teams a sense of security and ability to take risks and act without fear of personal repercussions.
From Fear to Safety
You cannot bring psychological safety in a box and hand it to an organization from the outside. Nor is it enough for the leaders to declare that psychological safety is the new norm, even if they are able to walk the talk and show the way. Creating psychological safety requires a fundamental change in the organizational culture. It must be introduced from inside the organization in a way that embeds the core tenets of psychological safety into the way things are done. It also must be internalized by all the members of the organization.
Not that leaders do not have a role to play in this process. To the contrary, their mindsets and behavior are critical. But they alone cannot initiate and maintain the change in how people feel free to speak up, react to criticism or handle failure when things go wrong.
Skills for Psychological Safety
For individuals and team members to develop the feeling of personal safety and to take more interpersonal risks, they need to acquire four core skills, how to: communicate in a non-defensive way, provide mutual support, treat each other as equals, and adopt a healthy approach to risk and failure.
Communicate in a non-defensive way … disengaging, empathizing, inquiring, disclosing and depersonalizing conversations, particularly critical conversations, help individuals let go of their defensiveness and reduce the risk of creating a defensive reaction in others.
Provide mutual support to others so that they can feel secure and grounded … Feeling safe to ask for help when needed, giving and getting help are crucial for taking the risks necessary for innovation and progress. Competitiveness needs to be replaced with a genuine willingness to contribute to other people’s success and the success of the company. A corollary to this is not being undermined by others for their narrow personal benefit.
Treat each other as equals … regardless of one’s social status and rank in the organization, accepting diversity in all its forms, including cognitive diversity. Unless we see each member of the organization as an equally valuable human being who need to be heard, who can contribute to the development of new ideas and solve complex problems, and whose opinions are validated, people will not feel safe to speak up and take the risks needed to be successful.
Adopt a healthy approach to risk and failure … Experimenting and taking risks is what sets great organizations apart from average ones. Failure is a natural part of risk taking and is inevitable. Employees need to stop being embarrassed and losing self-worth in the wake of a failed project. Instead, they should be rewarded for taking the risk and learning from the failure. Fail productively and fail forward, recommends Amy Edmondson.
You Need All Four Skills
These core skills are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. If progress is desired, risk-taking needs to be treated as a normal part of learning and doing business (with the exception of avoidable failures). A person who has a good idea or a warning to issue needs to be heard and treated as equal in the conversation and decision-making. If the individual is heard and decides to take the risk, it is important that s/he receives mutual support from her teammates and is not undermined or thwarted in the process. All of the previous skills require non-defensive communication that makes it possible to respond calmly and constructively to critical feedback.
These four foundational skills – non-defensive communication, mutual support, equal treatment and healthy risk-taking – will set employees on a journey that, through daily practice, will likely lead them to feel more psychologically safe and willing to operate at higher levels of engagement and opportunity.
Practice: Developing Psychological Safety through Peer Learning Groups
Building a sense of psychological safety in an organization is a process that takes time and effort. It needs to start at an individual level and gradually extend to the immediate work environment, slowly building new norms of communication, acceptance and collaboration.
A proven way to begin to instill psychological safety in an organization is to place managers into small peer learning groups. The group members first establish operating principles that ensure psychological safety in the group sessions. During the group sessions, the managers need to practice all four of the core skills when they: share their knowledge and experience, provide constructive feedback, practice responding non-defensively, collaborate on problem solving, propose new ways of addressing real management challenges, and mutually support each other as individual managers risk trying out these new behaviors.
The feeling of psychological safety they experience in the peer learning groups can serve as a model for the managers’ relationships with their employees, gradually creating a groundswell throughout the organization to create generally agreed upon principles that are accepted by the employees and endorsed by the leadership. This is the way to create psychological safety bottom up.
Chief Program Officer
The Peer Learning Institute