The importance of psychological safety

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You may not know your staff aren’t speaking up, meaning problems go unreported and unresolved

Abstract

Chances are you’ve had the experience at work of not asking a question you really wanted to. Maybe you had an idea to suggest but stayed quiet instead. No matter where you are in your organisation’s hierarchy, research shows that such moments of silence are painfully common. Studies report that people frequently hold back – even when they believe what they have to say could be important for the organisation, the customer, or themselves. From an HR perspective the losses from this silence are as large as they are invisible. Those who fail to speak up often regret this and wish for more fulfilment in their jobs. Because silence is invisible problems go unreported, improvement opportunities are missed, and occasionally tragic failures occur that could have been avoided. I’ve spent my career investigating what it takes to create organisations where people can bring their ideas, concerns, and observations to work. I call it psychological safety – and it describes a climate in which speaking up is enabled and expected. Such a climate is worth building when learning, knowledge sharing, error reporting or innovation are crucial for a company’s success.

What’s new

Twenty years ago I published my findings about learning behaviours in hospital nursing teams to suggest that the best teams have a culture where workers feel able to speak up about medical errors, to learn from them and prevent harm to patients. In less effective teams nurses remained silent about the errors they saw. In the past two decades hundreds of academic studies about psychological safety have been conducted that measure the positive correlation between psychological safety and desired outcomes such as error reporting, quality improvement and high performance. Interest in psychological safety has recently grown dramatically in the popular media, especially since 2016 when The New York Times Magazine published an article about a four-year Google investigation that found psychological safety to be the single most important factor in high-performing teams.

The depth and breadth of the accumulated research convinced me it was time to write a comprehensive overview of psychological safety’s role and reach. In addition to reviewing the literature, explaining the theory, and providing practical managerial advice gleaned from my years of teaching, consulting, and research, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth presents multiple case studies to demonstrate how failure to speak up or push back in an organisation contributes to headline-grabbing failures, such as those at Volkswagen, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Nokia to name a few. Other case studies in the book demonstrate how organisations that have worked hard to create psychological safety – such as filmmaker Pixar, clothing line Eileen Fisher, and global manufacturing supplier Barry-Wehmiller – thrive because employees feel they can speak up, offer ideas and ask questions without fear of punishment or embarrassment.

Key findings

Two decades of research on why employees fail to speak up at work and what issues they fail to raise has produced consistent results. Silence in hierarchies is instinctive and safe. The gravitational pull of silence – even when managers are well-meaning and don’t think of themselves as intimidating – can be overwhelming. In other words, people at work are vulnerable to an implicit logic in which safe is better than sorry.

In one study New York University professors Frances Milliken and Elizabeth Morrison interviewed 40 full-time employees working in consulting, financial services, media, pharmaceuticals and advertising, and found the two most frequently-mentioned reasons for remaining silent were fear of being viewed or labelled negatively, and fear of damaging work relationships. Employees wanted to speak up about both organisational and personal issues. Some concerns were understandably difficult to raise: for example about harassment, a supervisor’s competence, or having made a mistake. But more surprisingly they also held back on suggestions for improving a work process. My research with University of Virginia professor James Detert systematically demonstrated that people at work were not only failing to speak up with bad news or dissent, they were also withholding improvement ideas.

Detert and I analysed the thousands of pages of transcripts from our interviews with more than 230 employees in a large, multinational, high-tech company about instances in which they did and did not speak up to their managers or anyone else higher in the company. Interviewees spanned all levels, regions and functions. Ultimately we discovered a small set of common, largely taken-for-granted beliefs. We called them implicit theories of voice (see box-out opposite). It’s an old truism that bad news doesn’t travel up the hierarchy. But what we found is that people err so far on the side of caution at work that they routinely hold back not just bad news but also great ideas.

Employee engagement (defined as the extent to which an employee feels passionate about the job and committed to the organisation) is seen as an index of willingness to put discretionary effort into one’s work. Recent studies find that psychological safety, which includes speaking up, predicts worker engagement. In a study of 170 research scientists working in six Irish research centres, researchers showed that psychological safety was fostered by trust in top management and in turn led to greater work engagement. Additionally, researchers studied Turkish immigrants employed in Germany and showed that psychological safety promoted work engagement, mental health, and lower turnover. The positive effects of psychological safety were greater for the immigrants than for the German employees in the same company. For those who start out feeling more vulnerable, the benefits of psychological safety are even greater it seems.

As you might expect, the more confident people are in their knowledge the more they might be willing to speak up with that knowledge. Of course confidence is not always correlated with quality, and an employee’s confidence may be low even if their idea is valuable. In a particularly compelling study in several US manufacturing and service companies, then-University of Minnesota professor Enno Siemsen and his colleagues found that a psychologically-safe workplace helps people speak up despite a lack of confidence.

From research to reality

One of the most important things for any manager to keep in mind is that when an employee fails to speak up in a crucial moment it’s invisible. This is true whether that employee is on the frontline of customer service or sitting next to you in the executive boardroom. And because not offering an idea cannot be seen, it’s hard to engage in real-time course correction. This means that psychologically-safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries.

One place where worker engagement matters greatly is healthcare delivery. Frontline staff confront high-stress and emotionally-laden work with life and death consequences. Disengaged employees who remain silent create safety risks and higher staff turnover. Turnover means higher recruiting and training costs as well as a higher percentage of less-experienced workers. Experts’ concerns about staff turnover thus have given rise to interest in improving the healthcare work environment as a strategy for employee retention. In one recent study a survey of clinical staff at a large metropolitan hospital found that psychological safety was related both to commitment to the organisation and to patient safety.

Managers who appreciate the appeal of error-reporting, help-seeking, and other learning behaviours may be concerned that fostering psychological safety means relaxing performance standards. In fact the opposite is true. Because psychological safety replaces silence and fear with candour and openness it is conducive to setting ambitious goals. As depicted in the figure on page 44, psychological safety and performance standards can be seen as separate, equally important dimensions – both of which affect team and organisational performance in a complex interdependent environment.

When both psychological safety and performance standards are low (lower left in the above figure), the workplace becomes a kind of ‘apathy zone’. People show up at work but their hearts and minds are elsewhere. They choose self-protective silence over exertion.

Next, in workplaces with high psychological safety but low performance standards (upper left), people generally enjoy working with one another but aren’t challenged by the work. I call this the ‘comfort zone’. When employees are comfortable being themselves but don’t see a reason to seek additional challenge there won’t be much learning or innovation – nor will there be much engagement or fulfilment.

When performance standards are high but psychological safety is low – a situation far too common in today’s workplace – employees are anxious about speaking up, and both work quality and workplace safety suffer from the pervasive invisible silence. Managers in these organisations have unfortunately confused setting high standards with good management. High standards in a context where there is uncertainty or interdependence (or both) combined with a lack of psychological safety comprise a recipe for suboptimal performance. Sometimes it’s a recipe for disaster. I call this the ‘anxiety zone’. This is not anxiety about being able to accomplish a demanding goal or about the competitive business environment – but interpersonal anxiety that often manifests in silence.

Finally, when standards and psychological safety are both high (upper right in the figure) I call this the ‘learning zone’. If the work is uncertain, interdependent, or both this is also the high-performance zone. Here people no longer feel bound by invisible silence. They speak up to question, voice concerns, report mistakes and suggest new ideas. Only by collaborating and learning from each other can we get the complex innovative work done that is necessary today.

Managers who understand the deeply unsatisfying experience of being unable to share a question or an idea because of taken-for-granted rules at work are on their way to recognising their organisation’s speaking-up problem. By ‘seeing’ the invisible silence in your workplace you can begin to elicit the employee engagement, worker confidence, meaningful conversations, and valuable reports that contribute to a successful, fearless organisation.

Amy Edmondson is the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and was ranked 12th on HR magazine's Most Influential Thinkers list 2018

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