November 11, 2019

How To Build Psychological Safety and Become a Learning Organisation

At some point during school, we come to recognise that what others think of us matters. We start to develop a self-protection strategy and learn to manage our image so we are not picked on or perceived in a negative light. As Sociologist Erving Goffman argued in his pioneering 1957 book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, as humans, we are constantly attempting to influence others' perceptions of us by regulating and controlling information in social interactions.

By the time we are adults, this becomes second nature.  As human beings we instinctively care what others think of us. This is not helpful in knowledge-intensive work, which includes most businesses today. We have gone from executing the one best way to get a task done during the Industrial Revolution to needing ideas, ingenuity, and innovation. Organisations need to keep finding new ways to create value to thrive over the long term.

Psychological safety exists when people feel their workplace is an environment where they can speak up, offer ideas, ask questions, and point out concerns without fear of being blamed, ridiculed or embarrassed.

Many leaders still believe in the power of fear to motivate. Leaders assume that when people are afraid of them or of underperforming, they will work hard to avoid any consequences. In actuality, fear promotes silence, self-protection and the fear of stepping out of line. People find themselves in positions where they decide whether they should bring concerns to attention or sweep them under the rug. And leaders are under the impression that they are getting the best from their people where it most certainly is the exact opposite.

Research in neuroscience has extensively demonstrated that fear inhibits cooperation and learning. Fear consumes physiologic resources, diverting them from the parts of the brain that manage working memory and processing new information. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving. This is why it is hard for people to do their best work when they work in fear. How psychologically safe a person feels strongly shapes the inclination to engage in learning behaviours, such as information sharing, asking for help, or experimenting.

It is not enough to hire talented individuals if they cannot learn from one another, share their knowledge, and work well together. This is why a psychologically safe workplace is highly crucial. For work to flourish, the workplace must be one where people can bring their full selves to work and feel able to share their knowledge, make suggestions, point out concerns, and report failures, without worrying about being ridiculed or perceived in a negative light. Nearly everything we value in the modern economy is the result of decisions and actions that are interdependent and benefit from effective teamwork.

Psychological safety is a crucial source of value creation in organisations. A 2017 Gallup poll found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. This is why it is not enough for organisations to simply hire talent. If leaders want to unleash individual and collective talent, they must foster a psychologically safe climate where employees feel free to contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes.

Psychological safety has an important relationship with diversity and inclusion. Leaders can design the hiring process to achieve greater diversity. But simply hiring diverse talent is not enough. Inclusion is the next level when these people feel their voices matter, are heard, and are included.

As organisations seek to convert diversity into inclusion, psychological safety is increasingly important. Without psychological safety, diversity does not automatically mean people bring their full selves to work and feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas.

Toxic people in the organisation may exist as they do not feel heard, they are not given a voice, their opinions do not count, and just simply ignored. Due to these circumstances they do not feel like they belong or their work is appreciated. They become unhappy and detached. As a result, it could be the organisation itself that is creating the toxic environment.

Now that routine and predictable work is on the decline, more and more of the tasks people do require judgment, coping with uncertainty, suggesting new ideas, and collaborating with others. This means that voice is crucial in most organisations. For this to become routine, psychological safety must become institutionalised and systematised. Otherwise, problems go unreported, improvement opportunities are missed, and in some cases, tragic failures can occur that could have been avoided.

How to Set the Stage for Psychological Safety

Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem – Recognise and make it explicit that there is a lot of uncertainty and interdependence ahead. Point out that you have never been here before, that you are in unexplored territory. You are unsure of what will happen, and you need everyone's voice on board.

Acknowledge your own fallibility - You know you are able or prone to err. Admit you may miss something and you may not have all the answers. Communicate that you need to hear from everyone and they should not hesitate to point out concerns, report errors/mistakes, and ask questions.

Model curiosity. Ask a lot of questions. This portrays the leader as thoughtful and wise, rather than weak. Adopt a proactive approach where you learn more about an issue or situation. The foundational skill lies in cultivating genuine interest in others’ responses which conveys respect.

Freedom to Fail – Without it people will seek instead to repeat something safe that has been good enough in the past. The work will be derivative, not innovative. Failure is a source of valuable data and learning only happens when there is enough psychological safety to dig into failure’s lessons. It is not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. Once failure becomes part of the process and once the volume can be turned down on anxiety and fear, engagement at work will improve and growth from these failures can eventuate. 

In today's organisations, psychological safety is not a “nice-to-have.” It is not a perk, like free lunch or a games room, so as to make people happy at work. Psychological safety enables candour and openness and, as such, thrives in an environment of mutual respect. When people do not speak up, the organisation's ability to innovate and grow is threatened. It is essential to unleashing talent and creating value.