Whilst there has been a lot of talk about the concept of psychological safety over recent years, often people misunderstand exactly what it means. It is not about ‘being nice’, or ‘freedom from conflict’ or even a guarantee that ‘all your ideas will be applauded’.
So, what is it then? “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. In simple terms, it is where team members feel safe to speak up. Importantly, psychological Safety must be balanced with accountability within organisations in order to drive high performance. Without accountability, psychological safety leads to employees consistently only operating in their comfort zone. Whereas when leaders are able to get the balance right between psychological safety and accountability, individuals are pushed into their learning zone, which ultimately drives sustained high performance.
A key factor that helps with this balance is courageous authenticity, where people feel comfortable in putting themselves out there and being vulnerable. It encompasses being yourself, speaking up, talking about mistakes, and giving and receiving feedback. People can demonstrate courageous authenticity by asking for help when they need it, or speaking up when something is not quite right, or expressing their true feelings at work. They are also able to have the difficult conversations where appropriate and necessary.
Why is any of this important? We know that through years of research conducted by Amy Edmondson and her peers at Harvard Business School, psychological safety is THE most important foundation of team performance. It is the key foundation that connects team members in a safe way, enabling higher performance. Edmondson demonstrated repeatedly that a lack of psychological safety can even lead to people unnecessarily dying in hospital. She was even able to link a lack of psychological safety back to the explosion and unnecessary death of astronauts from NASA. Furthermore, Google, in their famous ‘Aristotle Project’ demonstrated that psychological safety was so crucial that it alone accounted for 36% in productivity and revenue performance.
How does courageous authenticity help with increasing psychological safety? The research of Brene Brown, a well know American professor, lecturer and author, has significantly highlighted the power of vulnerability over the last decade. She points out that our ability to show vulnerability is not weakness, and in fact, it is a sign of courage. Her research has shown that when people demonstrate vulnerability, it breaks down barriers to communication, build trust and create real human connections between people. These connections are crucial to people feeling safe to bring their authentic self to work. A further characteristic of courageous authenticity is admitting mistakes. Research by the University of Buffalo found that leaders are viewed most positively when they admit their mistakes because it shows a willingness to learn, which is a core aspect of authentic leadership. This also has the benefit of opening up communication between team members. Amy Edmondson talks about the benefits of making ‘intelligent failures’ where people are encouraged to experiment, take calculated risks and learn quickly. In fact, when running a workshop a few years ago, one of the participants in my session said to me that to fail is simply our ‘First Attempt In Learning’. This little acronym has stuck with me ever since.
Another quality demonstrated as part of courageous authenticity is the ability to both give and receive feedback. If you were playing in a sporting team you would probably expect some kind of feedback to know how you are performing, however sometimes we shy away from feedback within organisations. Feedback is a critical component in improving performance in the sporting arena and at work. We know that employees want feedback, both positive and negative. Feedback can improve moral, motivation and engagement, particularly when leaders get the balance right between positive and constructive feedback. Research conducted by Heaphy and Losada showed that the ideal ratio of positive to negative feedback is 5:1. My experience has been that, whilst the exact ratio doesn’t matter that much, the key point is that to improve performance and build trust, leaders need to aim for this type of ratio over time with their team members.
At Steople, we are currently working with a large client across Australia where only 29% of employees feel comfortable giving each other feedback; only 31% feel safe to say what they think without fear of negative consequences; 31% willingly talk about mistakes they have made; and 35% are able to have difficult conversations. That is, the large majority of people in this organisation are struggling to show many important aspects of courageous authenticity. Whilst some of this may be about the individuals in this organisation, most of it is about a culture that does not encourage people to speak up and be courageous. It does not reward this critical behaviour and in fact, it inadvertently punishes this behaviour. Sadly, as we have seen through the research and evidence above, this behaviour is necessary for teams and organisations to create and sustain high performance.
In my 30 years of experience working as an Organisational Psychologist, I believe that demonstrating courageous authenticity is one of the most important, yet difficult things to do. Unfortunately, I have witnessed many organisations that fail to create a psychologically safe environment whereby people can show courage and speak up. It is hard to create this type of culture and there are many barriers and challenges to doing so. That is why Steople has invested in 2 years of research to develop a comprehensive tool to measure the levels of psychological safety in teams – the Steople Psychological Safety Survey. The tool has been independently validated by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and is currently being used with our clients across the globe. Whilst it is still early days in relation to our use of this tool, we believe in the powerful capacity of psychological safety to enhance team performance. Furthermore, we strongly recommend measuring the levels of psychological safety within and across teams so that you can use this to create a culture whereby it is safe to speak up, to show courageous authenticity and build real human connections between people.
Professor Amy Edmondson – The Fearless Organisation, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, 2018
Brene Brown – The Power of Vulnerability, 2012