We’re living through uncertain times, where organisations and their people are facing new challenges, stresses and worry. We all need to change how we work and adapt to new norms.
While achieving psychological safety is clearly more difficult under the pressures of a pandemic, it is something that will help organisations get through these tough times, thrive and become even fitter for the future.
In this post, we’ll discuss the role of leaders in fostering an environment that promotes it – and explain how our tailored support can help you do so*.
Organisations need a pragmatic approach to developing psychological safety
Studies have shown that organisations that don’t enable psychological safety suffer from poorer performance, lower staff morale and lose more talent than those that do.
We discussed the importance of psychological safety in our last blog post, along with its foundations in neuroscience. In it, we outlined the scale of the problem and the disastrous consequences for not having a psychologically safe work environment – showing that the time to act is now.
But how can organisations step out of their cultural norms and make the necessary changes? Where do they start? While there has been a lot of well-intended communication about psychological safety, there has been a clear lack of practical and pragmatic solutions to help organisations build and sustain it.
At Axiom, our experts have been conducting in-depth research into this highly complex space since 2016. We have developed strategies, technologies, processes and measurement tools – forming a blueprint that can be applied to many different sectors, all around the world.
Having provided an overview to senior leadership, there are four key dimensions to our approach, which are tailored and blended to the unique circumstances of each organisation:
- A diagnostic tool.
- Short, virtual workshops and roadshows.
- A digital toolkit to help embed new habits.
- Ongoing measurement and reporting.
We often begin with a diagnostic exercise to identify and understand the issues facing the organisation or a particular team. With our diagnostic tool, we measure the scale of the problem and determine the root causes of low psychological safety.
We then use this knowledge to design a highly targeted strategy that will provide leaders with a set of actions that can be implemented right away.
Depending on the circumstances, this may include recommendations on:
- Actions needed by individuals.
- Improving existing practices.
- New practices to introduce and how to introduce them.
- Creating new rituals and habits.
- How to address the different perspectives and the needs of different groups of employees/colleagues.
- How to support line manages and leaders.
- How to encourage all colleagues, enterprise wide.
- How to measure the impact of changes.
- Sustaining psychological safety for the future.
- Measuring the success of your programme.
A targeted digital toolkit can then be created to coach leaders through the desired changes, with skills development workshops and other communication activities designed to equip leaders and line managers with the tools they need to create a new, more impactful ecosystem for psychological safety to flourish within their organisations. In short, we need to create new habits that will deliver success.
Encouraging psychological safety requires a high level of interpersonal excellence and emotional intelligence, along with a highly controlled ego. This means it can be difficult to achieve; no one likes to look at their own bad points.
Our approach is not about criticising how you do things, but about helping you to see where changes could be made to get the best possible result for your organisation and the people in it.
Leaders have an important role in driving psychological safety
It’s a leader’s responsibility to create the right conditions for psychological safety to happen, but it’s not an easy task. They must create an environment of trust that will draw people out, create confidence and encourage active involvement.
Our experience tells us that even in a seemingly psychologically safe environment, the further away from the ‘seat of power’ employees are, the less likely they are to feel comfortable being themselves – speaking without fear.
Ironically, when given metrics to show that colleagues do not feel comfortable speaking up, some senior leaders then ‘command’ them to do so, which actually creates a more entrenched workforce, rather than a candid and creative one.
This problem is often heightened by the creation of high-profile ‘working groups’ of diverse individuals – but if people aren’t empowered and encouraged to speak up these groups result in silence. And while working groups of diverse people are to be applauded whole-heartedly, the issue of ‘neurodiversity’ is often ignored. Simply put, the ‘louder’ colleagues simply dominate proceedings, so that quieter members of the cohort never get their say… which might just be brilliant.
Other cultural issues impact psychological safety, such as: working within functional silos, the national culture, historical norms, hierarchically deferential societies and socio-economic conditions.
All of these factors need to be explored to help create a truly holistic approach.
All colleagues have a role to play too
If leaders can create a psychologically safe environment, then all colleagues have a role to play too, in speaking up and having their say. Our approach gives them the permissions and tools they need to do so. And ongoing communications will reinforce both the business and personal benefits of co-creating success.
All colleagues need to feel included, valued and genuinely listened to. They need to feel safe and motivated to experiment. Success must be celebrated and failure openly acknowledged, together with lessons learned. And, in the best examples, colleagues can safely challenge the status quo.
Given the dynamic nature of the topic, we strongly advocate that regular soundings are taken to measure progress and inform the next wave of activities. Gathering evidence of – and communicating – early wins is key to creating momentum. And by the same token, keeping your ear to the ground can help evolve your approach to any issues as they emerge.
The pandemic has created new challenges and opportunities for psychological safety – a case study
Covid-19 has drastically changed the way we do business, with virtual meetings and events becoming the new normal. Within the ‘virtual’ events world, we’ve seen that employee behaviour can be different than it is at ‘in-person’ events.
While a virtual environment can be challenging for some individuals, with the right conditions it can allow people to engage more freely and confidently.
At one virtual conference we facilitated, people got involved and contributed ideas freely, showing much higher levels of engagement than at a previous live event.
To encourage interactivity and candour, all participant contributions were anonymised. If something resonated, others ‘liked it’ to help prioritise questions for answering. The result was that participants challenged and checked their understanding of the strategy as speakers presented its different elements, by raising their questions, observations and reflections – live and unedited.
“The interactive functionality is excellent. We get more out of participants than in a normal face-to-face meeting.” – Client feedback
Through Axiom’s transformative tech, those introverts who would never raise their hand to ask a question at a big in-person conference did so with confidence.
This is the creation of psychological safety in action.
Without psychological safety, it will be extremely difficult for organisations to navigate the new challenges we all face today.
Our approach enables leaders to unlock the potential of their teams by creating an environment where people are comfortable being themselves and expressing themselves without fear. Resulting in a more dynamic, innovative and adaptable workforce.
Do you want to create an environment of psychological safety within your organisation? Get in touch and we can tell you more about the support we offer.
*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:
We are forever grateful for their guidance and valid contributions to the field.