What if I said that success in the knowledge economy is predicated on having a corporate climate that does not ridicule, silence, or intimidate the steady flow of new ideas (however bad they may be), questions from left field, experimentation, the expression of critical thinking or out loud brainstorming, but allows for such things to be a key part of the creative process?

What if I said that, in thriving work cultures, actual mistakes are owned and corrected, and people's opinions and input in lower ranks matter to the point where they may be considered for a new product?

Does such a work environment sound too good to be true? Not if people-centered leaders create the conditions necessary for these outcomes to happen. And this premise can be described in two crucial words:

Psychological safety.

The antidote to fear has been found

In research conducted for her forthcoming book to be released late next month, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, finds that psychological safety is the antidote to toxic, fear-based management structures still so prevalent today.

With her book yet to be consumed for further exploration by yours truly, I went searching for anything I could find on what her book has to say about eliminating fear and bringing psychological safety to life in an organization.

But first, let's define the term. Edmondson succinctly describes psychological safety in a recent Work and Life with Stew Friedman podcast:

Psychological safety is a belief that I can bring my full self to work. It's a sense that my voice will be welcomed -- that I won't be humiliated or made to feel less good about myself if I speak up with work-relevant issues, questions, concerns, and even mistakes. 

The reason this is so important today, says Edmondson, is because we live in a world in which knowledge, insight and expertise are the currency and the source of value creation in industries ranging from healthcare to retail to technology. 

"If I have knowledge but I can't use that knowledge or express that knowledge because I'm holding back for some reason, then value is lost," says Edmondson.

Not only that, but people who do speak out in ways that threaten hierarchy and authority are typically fired, as is the case with the current administration. In turn, whether it happens at the White House or in the C-Suite, Edmondson says  fear is costly as talent, knowledge and expertise are lost. 

Another Harvard Business School professor, James L. Heskett, wrote up a great advance summary of the book, ​stating that "fear inhibits learning and cooperation" and fosters an "epidemic of silence." Psychological safety, on the other hand, leads to "greater learning, performance, and even lower mortality (in a healthcare setting)." 

Building psychological safety in your organization

While we'll have to wait for the book's release to discover all the tools and practices to counter fear in the workplace, Heskett's summary of Edmondson's book gives us enough strategies we can implement right now, including:

  • Managers must "destigmatize" failure and ​reframe it primarily as an opportunity to increase learning and growing.
  • Managers must emphasize why "voice" (elimination of fear to contribute) is important, and remind people of "why what they do matters."
  • Managers must become "don't knowers" who practice "humble listening" and invite others to participate by purposeful probing to find out what others are seeing and thinking.
  • Managers must sincerely express appreciation for contributions by others.
  • Accept the notion that fear doesn't belong in the workplace. When necessary, sanction actions by members of the organization that increase rather than reduce fear.

Do you buy in to the concept of psychological safety? Or is there a place for fear to functionally do its handy work to drive competitiveness, high productivity, and, ultimately, profit? Leave me a comment or send me a tweet and include #PsychologicalSafety.

Published on: Nov 1, 2018
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