It was an end-of-the-quarter off-site meeting and the leadership team where nutting out the strategy for the next quarter. As was common in these 2 or 3-day meetings the timeline for the agenda blew out as discussion, unmanaged, went down unproductive rabbit holes.
Agenda items were rearranged on the timeline, bumped to the next day, or as was the case with my segment, re-assigned to the 4 pm slot on a Friday afternoon and reduced from a one-hour session to a 30-minute session. The group leader (aka MD, CEO, or GM) then asks if everyone agrees with the agenda changes? There are nods and inaudible murmurs of agreement. Yet eyes are darting across the room at each other as we know the burning issue is being sidelined. No one speaks up.
During the lunch break, a number of my leadership colleagues take me aside and commiserated with me that a crucial people issue was being minimised and de-prioritised. Our house was on fire. The indicators were there, with turnover increasing, attracting top talent getting harder and filling open positions taking much longer.
Fast forward 3 months and our engagement scores had crashed. Like mega crashed, and now Corporate was wanting answers.
This is a classic case of a lack of psychological safety in action. Conditioning of being shut down, shut out, undermined, thrown under the bus, ideas immediately dismissed, unexplored and devalued, or worse, ridiculed all made a covert and simmering hostile environment.
What is Psychological Safety?
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, after years of studying teaming and organisational learning, coined the phrase ‘psychological safety’ in 1999. She defined it as: “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Timothy R. Clark, executive leadership consultant and Oxford-trained social scientist took this further by defining a four-stage model that explains that as teams grow in respect and permission, they advance deeper into the four levels of psychological safety.
1. Inclusion safety: Members feel accepted as a part of the team – they’re wanted, appreciated, and don’t feel excluded from the rest of the group.
2. Learner safety: Team members can ask questions, experiment, make mistakes, admit when they make mistakes, (without punishment) and even ask for help.
3. Contributor safety: Members feel safe to offer their ideas without fear of embarrassment or ridicule. They’re adding value to the team and making a difference.
4. Challenger safety: Group members can freely question others (including those in authority) and suggest significant changes to ideas, plans or processes. This stage incurs the highest personal risk because members are challenging the way things are.
The reality with the leadership team was that there was no challenger safety. We had all witnessed colleagues in the past who dared to challenge authority who were labelled as complainers, non-team players, suggested they needed to be on a PIP or even shown the (back) door. No one felt they had a voice or would be heard and that leads to feeling devalued. You are on the slippery slope of being demoralised, unfulfilled and looking for your ‘real’ tribe. Ultimately as an individual, you are unproductive, and as a team, vital collaboration and innovation are killed off.
Leaders are responsible for setting the tone of a psychologically healthy environment. They can spend time on individual career and skill development of team members, however, it is just as important to work on the team holistically and from a psychological safety standpoint.
Challenger safety is the hardest level to obtain due to our evolutionary responses from the amygdala fight-or-flight mechanism of our brains. Humans are hardwired to respond to challenges by a boss, colleague or subordinate as a life-or-death threat. Like a duck floating on water, we may seem cool on the surface, but our brain is scrambling and paddling mad underneath. It pulls the reigns in on productive and free strategic thinking.
Establishing Base Line Elements of Psychological Safety
HR can help with getting a pulse on psychological safety levels throughout an organisation’s teams and departments by establishing a baseline level and then building on it with Organisation Development and learning interventions that address what might be lacking.
To establish your baseline level, HR can leverage the ISO 45003:2021(en) OHS – Psychological health and safety at work guidelines standard. These standards outline the psychosocial hazards and risks at work that companies are required to ensure are not causing an impact on the health and wellbeing of their staff. Such hazards include:
- Aspects of work organisation, (e.g. roles & expectations, job control & autonomy, job demands, workload & pace)
- Social factors at work, (e.g. interpersonal conflict, communication, harassment, bullying, social isolation, leadership bench strength & quality)
- Work Environment, (equipment and hazardous tasks. E.g. poor workplace conditions, poor availability, suitability or reliability of equipment) that can raise anxiety and a lack of psychological security based on one’s own fear for physical safety.
Most importantly, the Standards emphasise the success of psychosocial risk management depends on the commitment from all levels, and functions of the organisation, especially from top management.
How To Measure Psychological Safety – a deep dive
Once a baseline of expectation is established, and the assessment protocol is determined, the next step is to measure psychological safety management effectiveness.
Harvard researcher Amy Edmonson during her original study used the following set of questions to measure psychological safety across 51 working teams:
- If you make a mistake on your team, is it held against you?
- Are you able to bring up problems and tough issues?
- Do people on the team sometimes reject others for being different?
- Is it safe to take a risk?
- Is it difficult to ask other team members for help?
- Do people on the team deliberately act to undermine your efforts?
- Are your unique skills and talents valued and utilized?
By gathering and establishing data around these questions, a baseline can be created upon which to measure the organisation’s psychological well-being.
The Way Forward
COVID 19 has changed the way teams work. In remote and hybrid environments more than ever, leaders must prioritise and grow inclusivity and belonging in teams.
Studies have shown that organisations that cultivate an environment where FIFFO (Fail Fast & Fully Own) is openly embraced and supported, have happier employees and more innovative cultures.
Organisations that support and prioritise people and their wellbeing by putting psychological safety first will be the ones that not only survive difficult and unexpected challenges but ultimately will thrive.