Psychological safety is something people must experience.
Anyone who has children will agree: children copy what you do. Because your behavior as a parent is exemplary. This is a natural principle. It is stronger than words: you can explain to a child that it has to tidy up his room. But if you always make a mess of it yourself, that becomes reference. Not the words, but the deeds. It is no different in organizations.
There is growing attention for psychological safety in organizations. An organization is psychologically safe, when people feel accepted and included by it. This is reflected in, among other things, employees who are open about their opinions and ideas. And colleagues who are inclined to admit mistakes – because the organization stands behind them and helps them solve problems.
This attention arose specifically after a study by Google into the effectiveness of teams. A few years ago they researched 180 teams, with the question: how can you develop the perfect team? Psychological safety emerged as the basic condition for well-functioning teams: people must experience their team and organization as “safe”. Only then will they take “risks.” Such as expressing their opinion. Or experiment. And – inevitably – make mistakes to learn how to improve things. That’s how teams and organizations learn and grow.
Are you serious?
Psychological safety is therefore a precondition for developing responsive organizations. Here lies an important task for management. But how do you do that?
For this, employees first look at their management: to what extent are they serious when it comes to psychological safety? Is it just words or also actions? Example behavior is of the utmost importance here to confirm that the organization is really safe. Or not.
In addition, managers should refrain from using their position of power to “enforce” certain behavior. Because that is the ultimate signal for employees that the organization is not safe – and people will hide back into their shell, in one way or the other.
The book “Insight1” gives a good example of this dynamic: in 2006 Ford Motor Company was in a deep crisis. Ford had lost 25% market share in the previous 15 years, and that year the company lost $ 17 billion. The new CEO, Alan Mulally found a deep-rooted culture of fear in which people put their careers above the interests of the company. Needless to say there was much resistance to change. Mulally wanted to transform the corporate culture, starting with his executive team. He encouraged members to be open about anything that went wrong. To his surprise, managers continued to report stubbornly positive about their activities. Week after week. Despite the huge losses, nothing seemed to go wrong ….
1 Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves And Why The Answers Matter More Than We Think, Tasha Eurich, 2018
The reason for this was the deep-rooted culture of fear, in which mistakes were not tolerated. No one ever felt safe reporting problems under the former CEO. Until a manager could not escape reporting a major problem with one of the new models, which meant that production had to be halted temporarily. The person in question had actually already prepared mentally for his dismissal after the meeting. But Mulally complimented the manager on his openness and asked the other team members how they could help.
This made it clear to the team that it was truly safe to face facts, discuss problems and resolve them together. This exemplary behavior turned out to be the “turning point” in the culture that Mulally had been pursuing for months. And that contributed to Ford’s recovery, which returned to profitability in 2009 in the midst of the economic crisis. Incidentally, at that time the only one of the big three car manufacturers in the United States.
Seize the moment with exemplary behavior
You can of course include psychological safety in the values of your company. You can communicate about it and tell people how important it is. However, it will only exist if and when it is experienced by the organization. And especially at times when that safety matters. For example, when something goes seriously wrong, when someone comes up with a seemingly absurd idea or in a conflict situation. At that moment you as a manager have the opportunity to seize the moment, with the behavior that you propagate. As with raising children, psychological safety must be demonstrated.