In our advisory work with executives, we often help leaders through some difficult conversations they need to have. Recently, one executive we are working with was faced with a particularly difficult conversation he needed to have with his boss, the CEO. The executive had been courting a new, large client for over two years now which could potentially bring a 20% increase in business. He needed to discuss two issues with his CEO. First, he believes the potential client does not trust him. Second, the potential client wouldn’t be doing business with them and the CEO and executive team will need to adjust their budgets accordingly.
When I asked this executive why he was not forthcoming with his boss, he responded, “I don’t feel psychologically safe.” When I asked, “What does that mean?” he responded, “The CEO will become very angry, get red in the face, raise his voice, cuss and probably fire me.” When I asked the leader if he had ever seen the CEO fire someone for botching a sale, he replied he hadn’t.
Even if actually getting fired was a remote possibility, this executive was fearful about speaking the truth to his boss. My advice, which the particular leader did not put into action, was to go to his boss, tell the truth about the challenges with this client and then ask for the CEO’s help. I felt strongly that if the CEO met with this potential client, there was a good chance the sale could be saved. Real or not, this leader did not feel safe and the negative impact on this organization, and his team, is significant.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School researcher, defines psychological safety as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
What are the benefits of a psychologically safe environment?
When leaders are able to create and role model a psychologically safe environment, the following are the benefits:
- Lower turnover: Across the board, researchers have found a relationship between turnover intent and psychological safety. For example, respondents least likely to leave their organization strongly agreed with the statement “I can easily approach my manager to ask for help,” or, “My manager respects my personal values, even when they disagree,” while respondents most likely to exit their organization disagreed with these statements. (2019 People Management Report PI)
- Stronger bonds of trust with the manager
- More sharing of suggestions and ideas
- Quicker innovation
- More diversity and diverse opinions
- Better adaptation to adversity and crisis
- More ability to be agile in a network of teams; more likely to collaborate
As a leader, it will be much easier for your team members to follow you in the direction you are taking your team, or the organization. To ensure your organization and its leaders provide an environment of psychological safety, implement these 10 specific actions to promote psychological safety.
- Define your culture: Clearly articulate your team or organization’s mission, vision, values, and strategic goals. Ensure employees know what they need to do, why they need to do this work and when the goals need to be completed. It is hard to hold employees and leaders accountable for creating a psychologically safe workplace when the organizational culture and goals have not been clearly defined. We work with organizations to help them build a culture where employees love coming to work and their customers love to do business. If employees do not feel comfortable taking a risk, being innovative or speaking up when they have a concern or dissenting opinion, most likely, they do not love coming to work.
- Be a role model: Once your mission, vision and values are clearly defined, be a leader who is a positive role model for taking actions to turn the safe workplace environment into a reality. Employees will believe the behaviors they see in action more than the mission, vision and values that is posted on the walls. As a leader, make yourself vulnerable. Ask for honest feedback or admit when you don’t know the answer. A leader who helps others feel safe is consistent, calm, inquiring, sees mistakes as learning opportunities, and demonstrates the ability to learn, change and grow when needed.
- Be fully engaged: When a team member speaks, give them 100% of your attention. Stop what you are doing. When you look at your phone, computer or sending an email while someone else is talking, it sends the message that you do not value them as a person. Being fully engaged also means demonstrating nonverbal communication that encourages your counterpart to continue communicating and sharing their opinion with you.
- Seek first to understand: Your team members know that you are truly listening to them when you ask open-ended questions to gain an even better understanding about what is important to them. Even if you disagree, when people feel heard and valued, they will feel safe speaking up.
- Be respectful: Almost every person has a deep need to be valued, included, appreciated, and accepted for the person they are and the gifts they bring to the team. When issues arise, lean into conflict sooner with the goal of improving understanding of different opinions, finding solutions, and building an even stronger relationship based on respect. Many times, it is possible to build an even stronger, more trusting relationship when a conflict or problem occurs, than if no conflict had ever surfaced.
- Know yourself: Participate in a 360 Leadership Development Assessment. Have the assessment administered by a consulting firm that will have you rate yourself on leadership competencies as well as collect feedback from your boss, direct reports, peers, and internal customers. Most leaders who participate in a 360, and then take actions on their lowest rated competencies, will be rated even higher by their teammates on a second Leadership Development Assessment.
- Focus on the aim frame: Focusing on the blame frame will create a culture where team members are focused first on CYA. Blaming managers guide conversations with the following questions: “What went wrong?” and, “Who do you blame”? Aim frame leaders ask questions that create psychological safety by taking the conversation in a very different direction. Aim frame managers ask, “Where do we want to be regarding this problem or opportunity?” “What actions do you recommend we take to accomplish this?” and, “How can I support you in leading this change?” Aim frame leaders create environments that are psychologically safe.
- Meet often: When you have one-on-one’s daily or weekly, all our research shows that employees will feel more comfortable sharing what is going well or right; as well as their areas or concerns. When you meet, delegate important work. When you delegate important work to your team, you indirectly tell people that you trust them and have confidence in their ability to deliver quality work on time.
- Include your team on decisions that will impact their work: Have the courage and confidence to ask team members for their opinion regarding decisions that impact their work. This demonstrates that you have the confidence to seek out opinions that may be different from your own. Seeking out dissenting opinion and figuring out how to use this information to make an even better decision or outcome, will help team members feel safe speaking up when they think differently than you do.
- Reward and recognize people who are willing to speak up. Invite team members to speak up and challenge you. As a leader, you are in a much better place to lead when you know what people are thinking, even when team members are thinking something that is contrary to what you currently believe. Thank people who have the guts to speak up and tell you their truth. With good questioning skills, you may learn something new, or ask a question that helps someone else see things through a different lens with a different opinion.
By role modeling these actions, leaders can create an environment where team members feel psychologically safe and. in turn, love coming to work.