August 31, 2023

TPL Insights #186 – How Psychological Safety in the Workplace Drives Learning, Innovation, and Growth Part 2

By Rob Andrews


By Rob Andrews with italicized content from the book The Fearless Organization by Dr. Amy C. Edmondson

Safe and Sound

Jim Hackett, arguably the best CEO Anadarko has ever had, told me that every time he started working with a new team, he made sure there was at least one person in the group who would disagree with him.

Speaking up is easier said than done. There’s no switch to flip that will instantaneously turn an organization accustomed to silence and fear into one where people speak candidly. Instead, creating a psychologically safe workplace requires a lot of effort to alter systems, structures, and processes. Ultimately, it means that deep-seated, entrenched organizational norms and attitudes must change.

And it begins with what can be called “stage setting.” Let’s look at how Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mines, headquartered in South Africa, prepared for, and then institutionalized speaking up.

When Cynthia Carroll was appointed in 2007, with much fanfare, as the first female CEO of an international mining company, she was appalled by the number of worker fatalities occurring in the company –– nearly 200 in the five years prior to her arrival.

Realizing that she was “in an unprecedented position to influence change” as both an American/outsider in a foreign country and as a woman where “until very recently women hadn’t been allowed to visit underground at mines in South Africa, let alone work there,” she immediately used her position to speak up and demand a policy of zero fatalities or serious injuries.

 An Unprecedented Move

Carroll’s response to the resistance could not have been more unambiguous. She shut down one of the most problematic and dangerous mines. Even more shocking, Carroll insisted that before the mine could restart, she wanted to find out what the workers were thinking, and she intended to get input from every single worker about how to improve safety. This, she knew, was a direct challenge to Anglo American’s strict hierarchical culture and rigid, top-down management style, which had begun with the mine’s founding in 1917 and was further strengthened by South Africa’s apartheid history.

 How to Set the Stage for Psychological Safety

Whenever you are trying to get people on the same page, with common goals and a shared appreciation for what they’re up against, you’re setting the stage for psychological safety. The most important skill to master is that of framing the work. Framing the work includes reframing failure and clarifying the need for voice.

Reframing failure starts with understanding a basic typology of failure types. Failure archetypes include preventable failures (never good news), complex failures (still not good news) and intelligent failures (not fun but must be considered good news because of the value they bring). Preventable failures are deviations from recommended procedures that produce bad outcomes. If someone fails to don safety glasses in a factory and suffers an eye injury, this is a preventable failure. Complex failures occur in familiar contexts when a confluence of factors come together in a way that may never have occurred before; consider the severe flooding of the Wall Street subway station in New York City during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. With vigilance, complex failures can sometimes, but not always, be avoided. Neither preventable nor complex failures are worthy of celebration.

In contrast, intelligent failures, as the term implies, must be celebrated to encourage more of them. They are the result of a thoughtful foray into new territory.

Clarifying the need for voice. Framing the work also involves calling attention to other ways, beyond failure’s prevalence, in which tasks and environments differ. Three especially important dimensions are uncertainty, interdependence and what’s at stake. Emphasizing uncertainty reminds people that they need to be curious and alert to pick up early indicators of change in, say, customer preferences in a new market, a patient’s reaction to a drug, or new technologies on the horizon.

Emphasizing interdependence lets people know that they’re responsible for understanding how their tasks interact with other people’s tasks. Finally, clarifying the stakes is important whether the stakes are high or low. Reminding people that human life is on the line –– say, in a hospital, a mine or at NASA –– helps put interpersonal risk in perspective. People are more likely to speak up –– thereby overcoming the inherent asymmetry of voice and silence –– if leaders frame its importance.

How to Invite Participation So People Respond

The second essential activity in the leaders’ tool kit is inviting participation in a way that people find compelling and genuine. The goal is to lower what is usually a too-high bar for what’s considered appropriate participation. The invitation to participate must be crystal clear if people are going to choose to engage rather than to play it safe. Two essential behaviors that signal an invitation is genuine are adopting a mindset of situational humility and engaging in proactive inquiry.

Situational humility. The bottom line is that no one wants to take the interpersonal risk of imposing ideas when the boss appears to think he or she knows everything. A learning mind-set, which blends humility and curiosity, mitigates this risk. A learning mindset recognizes that there is always more to learn.

Keep in mind that confidence and humility are not opposites. Confidence in one’s abilities and knowledge, when warranted, is far preferable to false modesty. But humility is not modesty, false or otherwise. Humility is the simple recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and you certainly don’t have a crystal ball.

Proactive inquiry. The second tool for inviting participation is inquiry. Inquiry is purposeful probing to learn more about an issue, situation, or person. The foundational skill lies in cultivating genuine interest in others’ responses.

Genuine questions convey respect for the other person –– a vital aspect of psychological safety. Contrary to what many may believe, asking questions tends to make the leader seem not weak but thoughtful and wise.

How to Respond Productively to Voice –– No Matter Its Quality

To reinforce a climate of psychological safety, it’s imperative that leaders –– at all levels –– respond productively to the risks people take. Productive responses are characterized by three elements: expressions of appreciation, destigmatizing failure and sanctioning clear violations.

Express appreciation. Imagine if Christina, the NICU nurse discussed at the beginning of this summary, had spoken up to Dr. Drake. Her quiet fear was that he would have berated or belittled her. But what if he had said, “Thank you so much for bringing that up”? Her feeling of psychological safety would have gone up a notch. This is an example of an appreciative response. It does not matter whether the doctor believes the nurse’s suggestion or question is good or bad. Either way, his initial response must be one of appreciation. Then he can educate –– that is, give feedback or explain clinical subtleties. But to ensure that staff keep speaking up to keep patients safe from unexpected lapses in attention or judgment, the courage it takes to speak up must receive the mini reward of thanks.

Destigmatize failure. Leaders who respond to all failures in the same way will not create a healthy environment for learning. When a failure occurs because someone violated a rule or value that matters in the organization, this is very different than when a thoughtful hypothesis in the lab turns out to be wrong.

A productive response to intelligent failure can mean celebrating the news. Some years ago, the chief scientific officer at Eli Lilly introduced “failure parties” to honor intelligent, high-quality scientific experiments that failed to achieve the desired results.

Sanction clear violations. Firing can sometimes be an appropriate and productive response –– to a blameworthy act. But won’t this kill the psychological safety? No. Most people are thoughtful enough to recognize (and appreciate) that when people violate rules or repeatedly take risky shortcuts, they are putting themselves, their colleagues, and their organization at risk. In short, psychological safety is reinforced rather than harmed by fair, thoughtful responses to potentially dangerous, harmful, or sloppy behavior.

Leadership is a vital force in making it possible for people and organizations to overcome the inherent barriers to voice and engagement. We must be realistic about the fact that “driving fear out” of any organization, as W. Edwards Deming (the father of total quality management who helped transform manufacturing practices around the world) put it, will be a journey.

I sincerely hope this summary of Amy Edmondson’s book has been as helpful to you as it has been to me. Creating psychological safety in your workplace will make your world a better place and pay huge dividends. Give us a call, and let’s talk about how one of our signature retreats can help your company.

Warmest Regards,