Blogs & Videos

Executive Corner – We All Need Psychological Safety

Michael Clegg | 03/16/2022

One of the greatest threats to breakthrough innovation and growth will be organizations that stifle differing opinions or worse, those that don’t reward engaging in different ideas.

One book that I recently completed by Adam Grant, “Think Again”, has an entire chapter devoted to Psychological Safety. Which is fostering a climate of respect trust and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal.

Professor Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School is the person who coined the term “psychological safety”.  She uses four dimensions to measure psychological safety:

• What is the degree to which it is permissible to make mistakes?

• To what degree can difficult and sensitive topics be discussed openly?

• How much are people willing to help each other?

• To what degree can you be yourself and are welcomed for this?

No alt text provided for this image

Psychological safety is the ability to be yourself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.

One of my favorite movies growing up starring Tom Hanks was the movie BIG. The story was about a boy named Josh that made a wish to be a grown-up and woke up the next day as an adult. Josh meets the CEO of FAO Schwartz, a toy company, who takes a liking to Josh because of his youthful attitude and seemingly great knowledge of toys. Fast forward to a Senior Leader meeting and groupthink session when they were evaluating ideas for new toys. One of the executives pitches a building that transforms into an action figure. Josh speaks up and says, “I don’t get it”. Very quickly, the other executives are aghast at how this seemingly “unknown employee shows up to challenge a seasoned executive.” 

Not only that but Josh’s suggestions stimulate new ideas and invigorate the group for a better session. Josh unknowingly was experiencing Psychological Safety. The only challenge is he was a kid and didn’t really understand the “informal corporate rules” of HIPPO – highest paid person’s opinion. If Josh weren’t in that meeting and made other suggestions, that toy might have made it to market and likely would not have been a top seller. Companies that can support that type of dialogue amongst their employees will have higher levels of innovation by challenging the status quo.

Why is creating Psychological Safety so hard?

To create an environment that has Psychological Safety, that environment must have trust. Trust is one of the foundations that every organization should strive for. My favorite author, Patrick Lencioni, wrote The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, discusses the importance of Trust. ”Trust is about vulnerability, team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open, even exposed, to one another around their failures, weaknesses, even fears.” In his book, he discusses the need for conflict as a part of building Trust.  Avoiding difficult discussions or hesitating with conflict, you hurt people more than when you give constructive feedback. A significant pitfall for people is that they avoid the truth to be nice. However, being nice is not the same as being kind. Falling into the abyss of nice can really harm the advancement of Trust. Therefore, taking the path of least resistance is why most organizations lack the ability to have Psychological Safety. 

How can we create Psychological Safety?

Having an open and honest culture can help facilitate safety. However, all too often this becomes a chicken/egg concept or circular logic. If an organization has Psychological Safety, then it is likely to have a great culture already. You need to be very deliberate to create an environment like this. A Harvard Business Review article provides how-to obtain Psychological Safety:

1.     Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary

2.     Speak human to human

3.     Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves

4.     Replace blame with curiosity

5.     Ask for feedback on delivery

6.     Measure Psychological Safety

The more we can generate positive emotions like trust, confidence, curiosity, and inspiration the more our mind broadens where people can voice concerns or issues without fear of push back or reprisal.

In one of the talks that I give, I share a story about an engineer that works for Morton Thiokol the company that built the rocket boosters with NASA, who had voiced his concern and risk about a potential issue with the circular gaskets called O-rings. Those gaskets were a part of the space shuttle that was responsible for keeping fuel from leaking to other parts of the shuttle. Unfortunately, the engineer’s opinion was met with silence and a lack of concern from leadership. NASA was more concerned with getting the launch up in space.  The leaders at Morton Thiokol were more interested in pleasing their customer, NASA. However, if that engineer would have stood up and spoken to the challenges, the lives of 7 astronauts could’ve been saved on the Space Shuttle Challenger. 

Was it a lack of Psychological Safety? Was it a drop in communication? Was it a combination? 

The official cause was determined to be a “breakdown in decision making”. Regardless, most of us work in organizations where our decisions are not about life-or-death conclusions. As leaders, we should try and create an environment that flows free with ideas and challenges the status quo. Not hampering the potential for innovation.

Subscribe on LinkedIn