In my previous article on How to Foster Creativity in the Workplace, I shared that the first foundation is to create an optimal physical space that allows employees To Think, To Connect and To Play. And we’ve seen many companies investing significantly in this area. However, what is in short supply, I’m afraid, is creating an optimal mind space in the workplace. And here, I am referring to the psychological safety in the workplace. Now more than ever, it is much needed during this unprecedented time where most people are working remotely.
What is Psychological Safety?
Dr Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School who coined the term psychological safety, defines psychological safety as, “A sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
What has Psychological Safety got to do with Creativity?
In 2012, Google commissioned a research code-named Project Aristotle to understand why some of its teams did remarkably better than others. The study identified one distinction —psychological safety.
Here are three tell-tale signs that psychological safety is alive and kicking in your workplace (physical or remote space):
- Employees feel comfortable owning up to mistakes and know they’ll be supported to learn from their mistakes (vs held against them which discourages new ideas and new learnings, and encourages employees to tell only good news and hide problems).
- Employees can voice dissenting opinions and ideas that might challenge people or frameworks in the organisation (vs a silence problem which may lead to group-think, default consensus or sweep things under the carpet. This results in employees keeping their ideas to themselves and hold back their potential contributions).
- Employees work collaboratively (vs silo mentality. According to a report by Deloitte, When employees collaborate: They work 15% faster, on average; 73% do better work; 60% are innovative, and 56% are more satisfied).
Building Psychological Safety in the Workplace
Even though the idea sounds logical, it is not easy to implement. How so? According to Dr Amy Edmondson, some leaders believe that fear is a good motivator for employees to work hard; hence unconsciously leaders may exhibit behaviours that induce fear. (Are employers subconsciously hinting possible retrenchments, work redeployment, pay cuts etc. versus honest conversations during this challenging time?)
Another reason is employees’ assumptions and perceptions. Based on my consulting and coaching work with employees from big and small organisations over the last 20 years, and especially in recent weeks, some employees feel “unsafe” because they lacked the confidence to articulate and/or defend their ideas, share their thoughts and express anxiety. Others respect their superiors and perceived that “speaking up” is a sign of “being disrespectful.” Some employees witnessed or “traumatised” by a bad experience. For example, one of my coaching clients was recently reassigned to a new role and not given any clear reasons by the HR. Thus she concluded that her opinions did not matter versus choosing not to speak up.
Three Key Behaviours
In my work and research, I’ve found that psychologically safe workplace exhibit three key behaviours:
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s empathy for others that drives the authenticity of psychological safety. It’s one thing to listen and nod your head. It’s another to consciously consider someone’s point of view and to actively recognise and value what they have to say.
It’s easy to have empathy for someone you like, but how can you develop empathy for someone who challenges your patience and understanding? One way is to spend time reflecting on that individual’s positive traits, see the good vs the bad. Another way is to approach a difficult conversation and start with, “I would like to figure out a way for us to work/solve…”. Invite them to explore with you to work out a mutually beneficial agreement. If your approach is full of empathy, it will likely elicit a calm response in return. There is no easy way to work with difficult people but the choice is entirely yours (do you want to sit on it or work on it?).
Evaluate your level of empathy by taking this quick quiz. Some books to gain more insights on empathy:
- Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Empathy
- The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People
- The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill
Curiosity is having a strong desire to know or learn something, in other words, you are genuinely interested. Curious employees always ask questions and search for answers. By asking more questions, we promote more meaningful conversations, more connections and more creative outcomes. And with curiosity rather than judgment, we create a safe space for others to express their thoughts.
SurveyMonkey, a provider of survey software products and solutions, is one company that promotes a culture of curiosity seriously. They hold town hall meetings where they celebrate the “question of the week,” chosen from employee surveys. They implemented a peer recognition program for praising those who demonstrate candour. And #greatquestion in the company’s Slack discussion is one of the highest compliments you can pay someone. In fact, SurveyMonkey’s company tagline is “we power the curious.”
If you have a Harvard Business Review subscription, you can take the assessment to gauge your curiosity profile.
If you sense that a team member may undermine, shame, or discourage you from speaking up, your brain will likely trigger hormones to support a fight-or-flight response. This means you either shut up or engage in an unproductive debate. But when you sense that your comments will be listened to and treated with respect, you are more likely to be vulnerable and say precisely what you are thinking. To quote from the best-selling book Crucial Conversations, “Respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that people can think about.”
Sometimes, people may demonstrate some of these “disrespectful” behaviours unconsciously at work:
- “Listen to reply” versus “Listen to understand.”
- Scrolling phones while someone is talking or presenting (or always switch off camera for online video calls)
- Consistently late for meetings (physical or online)
- Support a team member in private, but when the team member is challenged in public (or by a superior), support is withdrawn
- Ask for ideas and feedback but dismiss them later
Psychological safety is the key to Creativity. Today’s unprecedented time demand Creativity where employees work together in uncertainty, tackling new challenges and new problems with new lens.
So over to you, whether you are the employer or an employee, what needs your attention to contribute to a psychologically safe workplace?