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The theory of psychological safety and what it means for your organization

Over a decade ago, Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School set out to study the learning organization and what could be done so companies would learn better from their experiences. In her own telling, that lead her into the research of mistakes and how these are relevant to educational outcomes and ultimately to the theory of psychological safety and its influence on the way teams deal with and learn from individual and collective errors.

The initial data she collected showed, quite shockingly, that the more successful teams actually made more mistakes than those that reached poorer results. On further investigation, it turned out that was not the case – the better teams did not make more mistakes but admitted to more while the others covered a lot up.

The professor defines "psychological safety" as "a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves". So what does all this mean in the context of your business organization?

The benefits or a psychologically safe work environment

These benefits are easy to pinpoint: constant quality improvements, a strong learning culture, and increased productivity. Teams that are psychologically safe do better when it comes to implementing innovations and navigating change.

Read more: 3 Tips on navigating rapid change in the organization

A culture of psychological safety ensures that employees are more engaged and thus generate lower turnover rates. People feel free to take some risks, experiment, and express their ideas without fear of being frowned upon or, worse, experience some sort of retribution.

Compared to a culture where everything comes from the top down and individuals are not encouraged (if not altogether prohibited) to speak their mind, offer feedback, and brainstorm solutions, the psychologically safe organization holds all the advantages. However, it takes time and sustained effort to build such a culture.

Building a psychologically safe organization must start with its leaders

While Edmondson does bring general attention to the fact that most leaders do not purposefully generate fear, the fact remains that the feeling is more widely spread among the lower-level employees. This happens partly because it’s natural in a hierarchical system, partly because, at times, this is regarded as a motivational instrument (the classical carrot and stick paradigm of reward and punishment).

However, modern neuroscientific research shows that, rather than being constructive, fear consumes cognitive resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that process new information. When employees work in fear, they have a hard time exhibiting analytical thinking or come up with innovative ideas. Productivity is also severely impaired, as is the quality of the finished product.

So, it is up to the leaders to encourage people to experiment and express opinions without expecting reprimands.

Read more: Leading for impact: 5 Golden rules for effective leadership

A taxonomy of failure

“Always reach for the sky! Even if you fail, you’ll still land among stars.”

That’s a classic motivational saying, yet failure is much feared by most of us, and it is a most natural reaction to it. However, Edmondson points out that not all failures “are created equal” and goes on to divide them into three distinct categories.

First, there are preventable failures, then organizations also sometimes face complex and intelligent failures.

Complex failures happen when new, often unprecedented, combinations of events or actions come together – like a supply chain disruption or dropping of sales in the current sheltering in place demanded by the global health crisis.

Intelligent failures result from experimenting, usually into groundbreaking territory. When the fastest way to learn what works and what doesn’t is to try something new, the negative result can be deemed an intelligent failure and should be celebrated because it brings relevant information.

Read more: Making mistakes in e-learning: A dream come true

3 Practices necessary in building a psychologically safe organization

Every company is different, and the intricacies of each industry have to be taken into account (if we are talking about a healthcare company, for example, failures are not to be encouraged to a large scale), but the author of The Fearless Organization does map out three steps that are essential in producing a truly psychologically safe culture.

First, leaders ought to speak up and be forward about all the actual risks that the organization faces. Paradoxically, speaking about what is to be feared diminishes the feeling of uncertainty and anxiety.

The second step is to proactively invite feedback and innovative ideas. Leaders ought to make a habit of asking employees for their opinions and input.

And thirdly, but not less important, equal appreciation should be given to bad and brilliant ideas. By employing these three practices, leaders will help build a much-needed culture of psychological safety.

Wrapping up

Having employees who feel empowered and at ease with themselves in the workplace is a requirement for any business that seeks to successfully navigate the current turbulent waters and get to a profitable destination. A strong culture of psychological safety is vital to organizational learning and innovation, as well as to employee growth and development.