Engine Room Business Innovation

Psychological Safety Is Not a Hygiene Factor It's a key to success in times of transformation.

Creating psychological safety, in contrast, constitutes a high standard, an ambition that allows an organisation to be truly excellent and capable of transformation.

Beyond the Basics

This is an important distinction, because psychological safety has the potential to offer a competitive advantage for most organisations, it is not table stakes for being in business. In a recent article, “4 steps to boost Psychological Safety at your workplace,”  they outlined an approach to developing the skills to create this advantage. 

The scale ranges from 1-10, where a “2” or below represents a toxic environment with greater problems than the mere loss of employee voice, possibly including backstabbing, excessive self-protection that precludes focused, excellent work, and a guarded, suspicious approach to colleagues and managers. If that does not describe your workplace, that is certainly good news, but it’s not the end of the story.

A company that falls between 3 and 6 on our scale presents a work environment that appears reasonably healthy, but in fact is less engaged, open, and learning-oriented than first meets the eye. Here, unbeknownst to many managers, countless good ideas are withheld, the information or help needed to do a job well is not sought, and teamwork and collaboration suffer, all without being visibly problematic or toxic. This is the quiet middle zone where the illusion of a healthy work environment persists.

The risk of this middle zone is that managers believe their culture is conducive to innovation or agility, when in reality it is more cautious and self-protective than they think. In these companies, ambitious business goals were not backed up with the open, candid work environment that would have been needed to achieve them. What happened instead was senior executives lived under the illusion that all was well, when in fact bad news was simply being withheld. The culture invisibly all but guaranteed strategic failure in each case.

Finally, the top of scale, say 7 and above, represents a significant culture achievement. Here is where people can–and do—engage in the hard, interpersonally risky, work of offering criticism, asking for help, sharing out-of-the-box ideas, engaging in dialogue, and other behaviours that promote good decision making, learning, innovation, and ultimately excellence in a changing world.

A medium level of psychological safety might have been good enough to maintain a solid position. However, if a demanding, fast-changing environment calls for agility, innovation, or transformation to succeed, this will not be adequate. The necessary level of candor and vulnerability are missing.

When leaders choose to build the level of psychological safety conducive to genuine risk-taking and learning, they improve their chances of success. 

To strengthen psychological safety and dialogue skills to improve performance in the organisation’s fast-changing, demanding market environment. Focused training, as we previously outlined, appears to create strategic progress both for incumbents aiming to adjust to a new environment and for startups that need to transform as they grow rapidly. But crucial to doing this work is recognising the particular challenges of measuring psychological safety. Research shows that those further up the hierarchy tend to experience higher psychological safety than those lower, despite depending on them for input, ideas, and challenging questions. We believe that the conceptual scale we present in this article can help by making the risky middle zone salient.

Invite Others to Shape the Journey

We have worked with hundreds of executives who have tackled the challenge of altering how they think and interact with peers and subordinates so as to improve business performance. By making a few simple (not easy) tweaks to their leadership behaviour, especially in how they set the stage, invite others’ voices, and respond to bad news or challenges, the executives’ conversations slowly transform to become more authentic, courageous, and productive. It becomes clear that psychological safety is neither a hygiene factor nor (our other pet peeve) the “soft stuff” to push aside in favour of hard-nosed business concerns. But getting to this point starts with recognising the risks lurking in ostensibly healthy workplaces in which holding back sensitive information is the invisible norm.

We have found that discussing our scale so as to explain its three basic zones helps build motivation to take the following steps to move further to the right, from anywhere on the spectrum.

  1. Articulate the compelling performance goals the team or organisation seeks to achieve.
  2. Explain why achieving these goals requires people to voice ideas, challenge each other, and be open about problems and failures along the way.
  3. Ask your team members for ideas about how to hold yourselves accountable for moving to the right on the psychological safety scale.
  4. Agree on a schedule for checking in to assess progress on the business and culture goals as a means for making changes in what will necessarily be an iterative journey.

This approach prioritises a team or an organisation’s performance goals as a way of opening up discussions of culture, rather than the other way around. It also helps people understand that the absence of toxicity is not evidence of cultural health and helps executives to see psychological safety as a key to success in a transforming industry while also appreciating the challenge that lies ahead if they choose to hold themselves accountable for building it.

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