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How to Create Psychologically Safe Speak-Up Cultures & Teams

Author: Siana Sylvester | Editor: Rachel Bryars

“What is given to you is given to share not to keep.” -Mother Theresa

It’s Monday and you are in your morning meeting. Your leader wraps up with the same question you have become accustomed to hearing (that typically goes without a response): “Does anyone have any thoughts, feedback, or concerns?”

You have an idea that feels like a game-changer and muster up the courage to speak up. However, you are quickly confronted with interruption, criticism (not the constructive kind), and a dismissive, hurry-up-and-finish-up attitude from your leader.

You feel embarrassed and demoralized — and stay silent like everyone else the next time you hear the perfunctory request for ideas.

If you can relate to this scenario, you are certainly not alone. We all want a speak-up culture in our workplace where our ideas are valued and heard; however, even leaders with the best intentions can create cultures lacking what is known as “psychological safety.”

What is Psychological Safety?

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson defines psychological safety as, “a belief that one will not be punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

A psychologically safe environment offers a comfortable setting for risk-taking and vulnerability. In these cultures, individuals feel they can openly speak up without fear of chastisement, odd looks, or that awkward feeling of embarrassment and frustration that follows speaking “out-of-turn”. 

A good example of a psychologically safe environment is Pixar’s use of regularly scheduled “BrainTrust” meetings, during which employees are encouraged to speak up politely with candid feedback about a forthcoming Pixar movie.

Colleagues are asked to point out if the storyline is confusing, where the jokes do not deliver, and which characters lack emotion. Even though this feedback can be awkward to receive and deliver, the process makes the movies better.

What gets lost without Psychological Safety?

What happens without a psychologically safe way to discuss new ideas or needed feedback?

When we don’t feel safe to share our greatest strengths and gifts, we keep them to ourselves.

When we feel that expressing our ideas or thoughts will lead to social rejection or embarrassment, we keep our creative juices and transformative thoughts inside.

When we show initiative and feel reprimanded rather than rewarded, we learn it’s better to maintain the status quo than take risks.

Ultimately, companies without speak-up cultures often struggle to retain high performers or keep pace with their more innovative competition.

Benefits of Psychological Safety

According to a Google study on successful teams, researchers found psychological safety was the number one factor in determining a team’s effectiveness.  In addition to team effectiveness, psychological safety can improve:

Personal and organizational innovation — According to Tim Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, psychological safety gives individuals the freedom to explore, take risks, fail, and continue to try again without the fear of retaliation or embarrassment.  Change tends to create some level of anxiety in all of us — it’s natural for the brain to want to remain in its comfort zone and do things the way they have always been done.

In psychologically safe environments, the brain feels more secure navigating that inherent discomfort without the extra level of anxiety worrying what others will think of us if we fail.

What does this sound like from a leader? “It’s ok to try new things and not get it all right the first time. The result isn’t going to impact your performance review.” The leader should reward the risk-taking employee with some form of recognition, even if the experiment results in failure. This type of leader is cultivating a growth mindset and believes that any employee has the potential to come up with the next innovative idea when provided a safe space to do so.

Productivity and Employee Engagement — Employees in a psychologically safe environment are more likely to share their knowledge and ideas. This increases collaboration, produces community-building feelings of being heard and valued, and impacts production and creative outcomes through higher degrees of knowledge sharing.

What does this look like for a leader? A leader creates periodic meetings with their employees to hear ideas and promote opportunities for knowledge sharing. This might look like Gucci’s “shadow boards.” Young Gen-Z and Millennial employees meet regularly with senior executives to provide fresh insights and feedback. The results speak for themselves: Sales have grown 136% since Gucci began the practice.

Job satisfaction & Wellbeing — In speak-up cultures, employees are more likely to discuss mistakes, share ideas, and ask for and receive feedback. Team psychological safety is also directly correlated with individual mental health and wellbeing.

Personal and organizational performance — It is important that when we fail or make mistakes, we are met with a level of empathy and understanding. At HigherEchelon, we have worked with companies spanning medical, e-commerce, aerospace, manufacturing, and a wide variety of other industries. We have seen situations where there was so little psychological safety that employees would rather go out and personally replace a lost tool or item instead of report that it was missing. Such choices can lead to erroneous reports and tainted data, impacting performance, strategic goals, OKRs, safety, and overall accurate business awareness.

We’ve also seen clients who are afraid to ask their leaders clarifying questions which can impact labor hour costs because work being done takes longer than it should due to not getting it right the first time.  When you multiply this effect among many workers who do not do their best work in a psychologically unsafe environment, the impacts can be staggering.

5 Tips for Leaders to Improve Psychological Safety

Too many leaders feel the need to always have the right answers and be in the power seat. It’s these same leaders who then wonder why their team isn’t engaged and turnover is high.

It is up to the leader to recognize if their culture lacks psychological safety and correct it by example. Here are five ways to improve psychological safety:

  1. Proactively invite input and stop the reflex to add value: As a leader, it is important to ask questions and refrain from adding input just for the sake of sounding like you know more than those around you. You can remind your employees why it is important for them to speak up and respond appreciatively when they do. Consider implementing weekly meetings to discuss upcoming events or projects to stay connected to your team and practice candid, polite feedback.
  2. Respond strategically when mistakes are made: As a leader, you must delegate to be effective and avoid burnout. Sometimes when we delegate, the task is not completed correctly or the way we asked. Instead of taking the task away, consider how you can help that person grow and learn to complete it correctly. Encourage your employees to ask questions and speak up if they do not understand a task and check in with them to support their progress.
  3. Stop, breathe, and think: Try not to be reactive. When we hear feedback we do not like, it is natural to react negatively. Take this as an opportunity to recognize that without honest input, you cannot make as sound a decision as you would with others’ eyes on it. By being less reactive to an employee’s honest opinions, you are laying a strong foundation for future valuable input.
  4. Ask for help and know your weaknesses: If there is something you are working on that you know is another person’s strength, then ask for help. Challenge any mindset you may have that feels like, “I am the leader, so I know all the answers and should be in complete control.” You have the responsibility to help others perform well. Use every available opportunity to encourage your employees to speak up on topics they are confident about.
  5. Care about your employees as people: Share genuine responses to your employees’ wins and losses by being empathetic. Display active listening by closing your computer screen and looking at the person during one-to-one meetings. Simply taking the time to pause, truly listen, and show you care for another’s wellbeing will go a long way in showing you want your employees to speak up and feel heard.

It is difficult to collaborate or work well in a team environment without psychological safety. Ultimately, psychological safety and a speak up culture can improve your team’s effectiveness and give employees the confidence they need to enthusiastically respond when asked, “Does anyone have any feedback, thoughts, or concerns?”

Ready to embark on culture change and get results?

If you’re ready to grow psychological safety in your workplace, you are in the right place! At some level, all change is culture change and all change feels personal. Sometimes such changes are simply impossible without outside professional help.  

HigherEchelon is an organizational performance consulting firm that provides the resources needed to bridge the gap between where you are and where you know you need to be.

If you are interested in learning how to build a psychologically safe speak up culture, contact HigherEchelon today. We do a rigorous diagnosis to uncover root causes, and then apply the right remedy through a range of customized professional development services such as executive coaching, strategic planning, change management, corporate team building, interpersonal communication training, and beyond.

Get in touch today to take the first step in moving your organization away from fear and toward innovation, creativity, and engagement.

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