Blogs & Videos

What does fake psychological safety look like?

Anna Bramlette | 01/04/2024

In the corporate realm, honesty and open communication are often hailed as virtues, yet companies fall flat when it comes to practicing what they preach.  

Creating an environment where employees feel safe to voice their opinions, share feedback, and admit mistakes remains a complex challenge. Sometimes leaders just miss the mark. While their intentions may be good, they often use misguided attempts at fostering it. True harmony in the workplace requires embracing the messiness of disagreement and learning from failure. 

Leaders often reach out for guidance on encouraging honesty within their teams. The desire for unfiltered opinions and open dialogue is clear, but the road to achieving this is often filled with pitfalls.  

Why Psychological Safety Matters: A Historical Perspective 

Employee voice, the behavioral science term for speaking up about issues, offering ideas, or giving feedback, has been extensively studied. Notably, catastrophic events like the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster underscore the consequences of ignoring employee warnings. In the business realm, Boeing’s 737 Max crisis serves as a more recent example. 

The linchpin of encouraging employee voice is psychological safety, a concept championed by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. It involves creating an environment where individuals feel secure acknowledging failure, offering tough feedback, and sharing unconventional ideas without fear of reprisal. Despite its acknowledged importance, research suggests that only 26% of leaders develop the skills necessary to foster psychological safety within their teams. 

The Pitfalls of Well-Intentioned Attempts at Fostering Psychological Safety 

While most leaders express a desire for open communication, their unconscious ambivalence often leads to performative psychological safety. Here are some common yet misguided attempts at fostering psychological safety: 

  • Feigning Uncertainty: 
  • Leaders may pretend not to know something to appear open to others’ ideas. 
  • While genuine humility fosters psychological safety, feigned uncertainty can backfire, as exemplified by CEO Josh’s experience. 
  • Asking for Unwanted Feedback: 
  • Leaders may solicit feedback they don’t genuinely want or fail to act on the received feedback. 
  • Token requests for concerns or insincere expressions of improvement intent can diminish rather than strengthen psychological safety. 
  • Responding to Failure with Artificial Compassion: 
  • Leaders often understand the importance of admitting errors, but their response can be counterproductive. 
  • Masking genuine emotions or attempting to appear sympathetic may create an insincere atmosphere, leaving employees feeling unsupported. 

The Journey to True Psychological Safety: Balancing Harmony and Discomfort 

Leaders seeking both a harmonious workplace and genuine psychological safety must navigate the complexities of disagreement, emotional discomfort, and the acknowledgment of failure. While it may seem tempting to pursue equilibrium and comfort, true psychological safety emerges from the messiness of embracing disagreement and learning from failure. 

In conclusion, the quest for psychological safety is a journey that requires leaders to authentically engage with the discomfort of disagreement and the challenges of failure. Persevering through this journey creates a workplace environment where all voices are genuinely heard, failure is acknowledged and learned from, and feedback is offered and received graciously. In the pursuit of true organizational success, there’s no room for the “fake it till you make it” approach to psychological safety. 

Source: Harvard Business Review

Want to hear more from Q Works?

Follow us on social media