The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:
- Unproductive, boring meetings
- Astonishing amounts of wasted time
- Avoidance of sensitive issues
- Lack of full engagement
- Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
- Political games and hidden agendas
The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study, “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”
Andrew Kakabadse found that an alarmingly high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.
Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)
Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).
A related problem is “groupthink”—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.
What’s to be done?
What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call “psychological safety”: a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, such as floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.
Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”
Easier said than done.
Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.
Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”
She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, psychological safety is diminished or destroyed.
She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries,” because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so countless ideas are never shared.
The Importance of Trust—And Conflict
To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.
Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni, who has noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to be avoided, because it can be awkward and uncomfortable.
Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.
“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations
Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.
This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.
“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni
By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.
The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.
Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.
Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).