Why psychological safety matters to high performance.
You may have heard that Psychological Safety is the #1 predictor of team effectiveness and that high psychological safety in the workplace accelerates and supports high performance. But how? Let’s start with what psychological safety is, as defined by Professor Amy C Emdondson, Harvard Business School
A belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In other words, speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.
There are 4 domains that underpin psych safety; the need to be included, to contribute, to learn and feel free to challenge the status quo, to ask questions, share ideas, collaborate, offer solutions and raise concerns. It’s a human need to feel seen, heard and know that we matter.
Now all of this requires voice, which means relying on our communication skills and our emotional intelligence. Speaking up seems like a fairly straightforward concept and conventional wisdom would suggest that if someone has something to say, they’ll just go ahead and say it.
The truth is, it's quite challenging.
Implicit voice theory, studied by Edmonson, suggests people often don't speak up and this is true even if you have a good leader and supportive workplace culture because as we know through our EQ work, we are hardwired for self protection. Speaking up benefits the collective whereas for the individual, it may come at a cost, such as rejection, ridicule or judgement.
What makes it all the more challenging is that it's in our nature to prefer certainty to ambiguity, so we may hold back offering suggestions or new information until we are certain we’ll get the response we desire or when we have a good grip or understanding of the issues. We also think we have a strong sense that we see things as they are but of course we see things as we are.
As we love to say at PeopleQ, our perception is our reality!
This may hold us back because we fear we might bump into opposing viewpoints. Additionally, if we ask a question we appear uninformed or we look like we don’t know our stuff. As a result, we worry which consciously and subconsciously holds us back.
I recall being called into an impromptu executive leadership meeting to share my opinion on how best to deliver a complex new project. It was clear those in the room weren’t aligned and wanted an operational ‘voice’. A strong desire to win the project and parallel views on how best to achieve this meant I walked into a room full of tension! The opinion I shared was met with a narrow line of questioning which did not feel like genuine inquiry. I didn’t have all the answers but I felt admitting that in front of this audience would deem me incompetent, and not saying anything would do the same. Whilst I had good reason to be there due to my in-depth knowledge and ample ways to tackle the perceived problem, at that moment I froze and was unable to leverage my unique perspective. I was too busy assessing the risk of speaking up versus not speaking up, both seemed treacherously dangerous!
This wasn’t the most effective meeting I’ve attended and I know I’m not alone in this experience. My business partner shares many similar experiences and we see this often in our coaching conversations.
We all recall times when we didn’t speak up or show up as we'd like. It’s instinctive to go into self-protect mode and wait and see.
As I work with leaders and teams, I hear many examples and stories where psychological safety was low and what truly makes it astonishing is what must be an astronomical number of ideas that never get shared, concerns that never get expressed, or mistakes that never get corrected.
If we aren’t hearing from our people, we could be missing business improvement opportunities. This is why no news is actually bad news. Reframed, imagine how much more effective situations like this could be if people felt that they could speak without having to constantly manage interpersonal risk.
Research suggests that if employees felt their opinions were solicited and mattered, organisations would experience an uplift in productivity and profitability.
Cultivating psychological safety is foundational to a high performing and thriving workplace culture. They go hand in hand and the good news is that PeopleQ can support organisations to become fearless in building a high performance culture!
PeopleQ are proud to be certified Fearless Organisation practitioners to share and bring to life Edmondson’s work with our clients. We offer the Fearless Organisation Scan which helps measure and improve psychological safety in teams across four different areas as well as deliver half day Psychological Safety workshops with Leaders and Teams to support their high performance journey.