An introduction to Psychological Safety. An unlock for the challenges of today.

By 24th March 2021Blog
Business man looking out of a keyhole | Axiom Communications

Psychological safety is an increasingly important and topical issue for leaders today, and we believe that action is needed now to make sure that organisations overcome the challenges facing them today, to not only survive but thrive.

In this blog post, we’ll explain more about what psychological safety means and we’ll follow this up with another post outlining an approach that could improve it within your own organisation*.

What is psychological safety and what does it look like within an organisation?

Psychological safety has been defined as ‘the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’ by Harvard professor Amy Edmonson, a leading researcher in the field.

Psychologists have been studying the impact that psychological safety has on organisations since the 1960s. In recent years, it has emerged as a key concept in understanding what drives effective teamwork and innovation in complex contexts – and it can be argued that it is especially important now, in the context of the global pandemic.

To understand it at its most basic level, people don’t want their peers and colleagues to doubt their competence or think negatively about them. They certainly don’t want to face harsh criticism if they can avoid it. It’s natural to want to protect yourself from this, which results in not asking questions that could seem ‘naive’ and not making suggestions that could potentially be lifesaving. Not only does this prevent effective teamwork, but as we will discuss below, the results can be deadly.

High psychological safety certainly doesn’t mean that people are ‘nice’ all the time and try to avoid conflict. Almost the opposite is true. But what it does mean is that everyone in the team feels safe to speak up with their ideas and concerns, ask for help and discuss mistakes without being humiliated or punished.

In a time of rapid change, nurturing an environment where this can happen is crucial.

New challenges require new ways of thinking

Although some businesses may historically have generated success without psychological safety (though perhaps it has always been an issue, under the surface) organisations today face new challenges.

Issues like large scale environmental and political instability, increased complexity and uncertainty, the need for fast innovation and collaboration across several diverse considerations require new ways of thinking and cannot be addressed without creating psychological safety at the core.

Given the current stresses that we’re all under due to living during a pandemic, the chances are that any issues are significantly more heightened than normal.

This is a topic we simply have to truly address, now, not just talk about.

The true cost of not having psychological safety within your team

The global research group, Gallup, have identified that only 3 in 10 employees agree that their opinions count at work. They calculated that moving the ratio to 6 in 10 would generate a 12% increase in productivity and a 27% reduction in staff turnover.
As well as the effect this has on employee morale, it also has significant consequences for performance.

A work environment without psychological safety has a culture of fear. Neuroscience shows us that fear diverts our physiological resources from parts of the brain that manage working memory and process new information. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight and problem-solving.

Thought leaders (Edmondson and Lei, 2014) have further identified that ‘a psychologically safe environment enables divergent thinking, creativity, and risk taking and motivates engagement in exploratory and exploitative learning, thereby promoting team performance’.

In fact, a major study by Google found that psychological safety was by far the most important element in building a successful team. Even more so than skills and qualifications.

Without psychological safety, innovation stalls and companies lose their competitive edge

Innovation drives success, but it isn’t easy to achieve. Most of the time, innovation doesn’t happen with a light bulb moment or result in a world-changing new invention. Instead, a truly innovative team are successful because they can collaborate effectively. They have the tools to quickly and easily adapt to new market changes and customer needs.

A well-known study by Distefano and Maznevski looked at how culturally diverse teams can perform better. They found that teams with the best goal achievement and innovation were not those that worked together happily without conflict – often this was a result of suppressing or hiding disagreements or differences.

Instead, it was teams who felt able to take the risk of challenging each other, engaging in frequent conflict and disagreement that pushed the boundaries of creativity and performance.

They operated in an environment of true psychological safety and trust.

The younger workforce value psychological safety as a priority

The world today is an uncertain place, and millennial employees (those born between 1981 and 1996) in particular are fearful about taking risks.

This generation is typically well educated, skilled, and want to make an impact on their organisations. However, many have large student debts and due to current economics, find the housing ladder increasingly difficult to get onto. Many suffered a stalled start to their career following the 2008 financial crisis.

As such, this generation operates on a low-risk basis and unfortunately, some organisations will fail to unlock their potential if they don’t encourage more intellectual bravery and create psychologically safe working environments.

The disastrous cost of poor psychological safety – some examples

Without psychological safety, individuals don’t have the freedom to contribute ideas, make and point out mistakes, or learn to do better. The results can be extremely serious for performance, cost lives and endanger even the survival of the organisation itself.

What is known as the Tenerife disaster, the crash between two huge aeroplanes at the Los Rodeos airport in 1977 which cost hundreds of lives could have been avoided, according to Amy Edmonson. If only the flight engineer and first officer of the KLM plane were able to speak up and challenge the pilots’ assumptions and mistakes.

High profile company failures such as Nokia’s near collapse after failing to keep up with developments in the smartphone industry and Volkswagen’s disastrous creation and handling of the diesel emissions scandal have been strongly linked to a lack of a psychologically safe environment, driven in both organisations by leadership behaviours that created fear and oppressed employee voices at every turn.

The theory is compelling, and in practice is transformational

At Axiom, we have seen in practice how modelling psychological safety within an organisation can unlock a creative, dynamic and innovative culture.

The implications of not creating greater psychological safety have been made clear above, and we have seen the negative effect to be true in some of the stories our clients share, as they provide the background behind their requests for our support.

The scale of the problem is enormous; it is complex and highly nuanced. To date, there has not been a set of clear and practical solutions to help drive-up psychological safety and unfortunately for many organisations, this has meant that they’ve been stuck in a pattern of fear, underperformance and stalled profit growth.

At Axiom, we have developed an approach that is immediately executable and has successfully changed the trajectory for the teams we’ve worked with.

We’ll be sharing more about the work we do in coming blog posts.

*Axiom’s approach to Psychological Safety is informed by our own 25 years of real-world experience, alongside the writings and theories of thought leaders. On the topic of Psychological Safety, these include:

Domna Lazidou
Timothy Clarke
Charles Duhigg
Ann Edmonson
William Kahn

We are forever grateful for their guidance and valid contributions to the field.

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