I spoke to someone recently who told me she had finally plucked up the courage to say to her boss: ‘There is a climate of fear in the team’. Apparently, her boss didn’t take it too well and she believes it may have been a career-limiting conversation. And yet, she felt it was her duty to stand up to her senior and say what others were too scared to.
How many times have you felt afraid to raise an issue, a failing, or a concern? What if, instead, you felt supported to raise any concern? And imagine how much more effective and perhaps satisfied you would feel – and your team. And if you’re a boss, envisage an environment of openness, courage and curiosity and how motivating that can be for those you lead.
This is called ‘psychological safety’ – a term that’s been around for quite a while now, but you don’t often come across. According to Harvard’s Amy Edmonson, author of ‘The Fearless Organization’, it’s the biggest driver for high performing teams. High performing not just in terms of revenue or profit but in less measurable areas such as: creativity, innovation, growth, collaboration, healthy competition and learning.
With the average working adult spending approximately 35-40 hours a week at work – that’s more than 2,000 hours per year, as found by Oxford Group Research – it’s more important than ever that people feel safe and happy as an employee. So why don’t more of us know about it or how to experience or create it at work?
The concept of psychological safety dates back to research on organisational change in 1965 by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, who discussed the need for psychological safety to help people cope with significant change. Most interesting to me is that Schein believed that it allows people to focus on achieving shared goals, rather than self-protection. To put it simply, people are more aware of the outcome of the group than just their own success.
This brings me to the pivotal role of leaders in allowing psychological safety to thrive – or more often, not. Creating an atmosphere where candid commentary is encouraged may sound daunting. And yet, if the academics are right, and certainly I have experienced it myself, an environment that’s challenging but not threatening may have the power to transform how your team performs. With this in mind, as a boss, would you entertain the idea? It certainly takes guts, but I would argue it’s a bold move worth taking.
As Mark Costa, CEO of Eastman Chemical company warns: ‘There are a lot of CEOs out there who, once they get the job, think they either have to have all the answers… or they get so arrogant that they think they know all the answers – which are really the frightening ones’. In other words, an ability to share ideas and failures – and learn from those – makes for a strong, approachable leader who can act as a catalyst for productivity and business growth. In my opinion, a good boss shows his or her vulnerabilities simply because none of us knows it all.
If you’re open to the concept, how would you go about it? What would psychological safety look like in your office? Would issues – even thorny ones – be discussed openly, or behind closed doors? And could this strategy have the power to boost discretionary effort? And by this, I mean the freedom to go above and beyond because your employees feel inspired and motivated, rather than compelled to clock watch because they’re disengaged and disinterested. I certainly think so, and I believe all organisations need to make the mental health of their employees a priority. Those that do, in my opinion, will lead businesses that are free from fear – and fit for the future.
If you want to find out more about how you can become a more open boss and create a state of psychological safety for your team, let’s chat: firstname.lastname@example.org.