HR must build psychological safety so employees feel safe speaking up

As an HR professional, you have no doubt noticed that the concept of psychological safety has hit the mainstream.

Print and digital articles are everywhere. It’s featured in job announcements and Glassdoor reviews (“good psychological safety here”).

Briefly, psychological safety describes an environment where people feel they can speak up at work without fear that their manager or colleagues will think less of them.

Psychological safety is an academic term that dates back to the 60s; I didn’t coin the term or invent the concept, but I did discover how very much a sense of ‘feeling safe to speak up’ varies across groups within organisations – even when the organisation has a strong culture.

Further, in my research over the past 20 years, I’ve also shown that these differences in psychological safety matter for performance - especially when tasks require teamwork and problem solving.

But until recently psychological safety enjoyed a satisfying but quiet existence in the corners of academic research. Why does it now appear to be everywhere?

First, the proximate reason: Google’s Project Aristotle. After two years, considerable investment of time and money, and the collection of vast amounts of data, the investigation into what makes Google’s best teams so effective had an eye-catching bottom line: psychological safety.

And when Google speaks about innovation, teams, and effectiveness, people listen.

A February 2016 article in the New York Times brought the study into living rooms and offices around the world, including mine. Imagine my surprise (and delight) at discovering in the Sunday paper one morning that my own research had been put to use at Google.

A second factor is the stream of very public corporate fiascos that can be traced to people not speaking up to challenge unrealistic assumptions or demands. You only have to look at the business media’s reports on Volkswagen, Wells Fargo or—most recently—Boeing to find evidence that a culture of fear derailed otherwise good businesses and gave rise to costly scandals.

The fatal accidents of two 737 Max jets stand as stark reminders of the challenge of employee voice – even in high risk industries. The intense scrutiny of Boeing production facilities that followed led to reports that workers in Boeing’s 787 South Carolina plant felt pushed to maintain an overly ambitious production schedule and were fearful of losing their jobs if they raised quality concerns.

Although not from the facility where the ill-fated 737s were produced, the workers’ comments presented a textbook case of a widespread fear that speaking up will trigger retribution rather than appreciation.

The accidents and the resulting media attention led to the firing of its CEO in December and to the recent publication of damaging internal communications proving that employees had concerns but were not bringing them into forums where they could be addressed.

Third, the emergence of the #MeToo movement brought home the reality of sustained harassment and abuse for an unimaginable number of women in the workplace.

A floodgate was opened, and we learned, bit by painful bit, the stories of women who could not speak up for fear of recrimination. And that fear was well-founded. The clichéd threat, “You’ll never work in this town again,” turned out to be quite literally true in too many cases.

Finally, and most importantly, a growing number of managers are recognizing that psychological safety is invaluable in the knowledge economy. Without it, people cannot bring their full contributions to work.

Psychological safety offers a way out of the speaking-up dilemma we’ve all been in at one time or another. The thought bubble in our heads goes something like this: “I think this [project, decision, idea] is bound for failure.

Should I say something and alienate everyone in this room who seem to think it’s a great idea? The boss seems to think it’s great. I might look stupid. I might get sidelined, or get a reputation as a troublemaker, or maybe even get fired.”

The research on psychological safety gives leaders and employees a framework, tools, and a vocabulary for getting out of this bind. Only when people know that, even though it is hard to speak up, their colleagues and managers will welcome hearing from them – good or bad, right or wrong.

Erring on the side of voice rather than silence is the only way to avoid the kinds of business, safety, and dignity failures I’ve described in this article.

In short, the concept of psychological safety is striking a responsive chord today quite simply because there is a need. The idea, and the research behind it, point to a set of requirements that are important but less quantifiable than market share or quarterly profit.

Most people want to be able to speak freely about concerns without jeopardising their stature or their job. Most people want to feel more engaged with their work and workplace. And I suspect that consciously or not, most people wish those above them understood how to create more constructive dynamics in the workplace.

With every passing day, work becomes more complex, interdependent, uncertain and fast paced. Whatever your job, chances are that at many points in your day, you are in unexplored terrain.

What you’re being asked to do hasn’t been done before, in this particular way or circumstance. If people are afraid to share what they think, risks and lost opportunities alike multiply.

In short, the need for psychological safety has become increasingly apparent as the speed of change in so many industries becomes more and more apparent.

The surge of interest in psychological safety is good news for more than just its most vocal academic sponsor. I believe it mirrors the growing elevation of HR in general.

As the world becomes more challenging, HR’s influence is steadily expanding to design and manage the myriad ways employees can grow, learn, and feel more fulfilled in their jobs.

It’s a bit like the progression in medicine from “sick care” (mitigating the negative) to true health care (amplifying the positive). There is a long overdue recognition that the concerns of HR – developing, growing, and engaging the knowledge of employees – are the concerns of the organisation.

When an organisation takes psychological safety seriously, it adopts a range of practices, behaviours, and ways of communicating that unleash innovation, learning and growth—both individual and organisational.

Operating without psychological safety is like driving around with the parking brake on. HR professionals play a vital role in building a fearless organisation capable of living up to its values and fulfilling its purpose.

Amy Edmondson is the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School