Why is psychological safety being ignored?

20 March

 In one of the most extensive business research projects ever conducted, Project Aristotle, Google found, to their surprise, that the number one driver of team performance is psychological safety.

This is a gift on a plate to organisations. Want to radically improve your performance? Then simply make psychological safety a priority.

The response ... crickets. My partner in Organisational Misbehaviour, Dr Richard Calydon, and I talk to many organisations about this subject. We expect it to be top of most senior executive's agendas. But, alas, it is not. Nowhere near it. Following are some of the reasons why, in no particular order.


Little or no Understanding of Psychological Safety

Many executives simply don't know about it. They haven't read Laura Delizonna's article in Harvard Business Review, they haven't seen Amy Edmondson's TED Salon talk on it, they missed the New York Times special feature, and they haven't read Google's guidebooks on team effectiveness or any number of other articles on psychological safety. Ignorance is bliss; but not an excuse.


It's Misperceived and Misunderstood

A number of articles have confused psychological safety with safe spaces and low accountability. Safe spaces are places in which you go if you do not want to be confronted by ideas and opinions that are offensive to you. In psychologically safe environments, you need to speak up. Although Amy Edmondson does identify a high psychological safety / low accountability environment (she calls it the comfort zone), she makes clear that psychological safety works in parallel with accountability. If there's high psychological safety and high accountability, it's a learning zone. By the way, low psychological safety and high accountability? That's the anxiety zone.


"It's a fad"

Fads come and go all the time in business, and one should remain healthily sceptical. However, the depth of Project Aristotle's research cannot be ignored: 2 years, 180 teams, double-blind interviews, and over 35 statistical models analyzing hundreds of variables. The data and insights cannot be ignored by anyone who is serious about business performance.


"It's not for us"

Could be true. Amy Edmondson states that high psychological safety is only important in landscapes of uncertainty and interdependency. For work which is straight-forward and can be done without relying on others then business, as usual, is fine. Or even better, replaceable by an AI.


Senior people don't want this spotlight on them

Quote from the HR department of a listed company about running a workshop on psychological safety: "We can't put this forward. There are people at the top that will feel extremely threatened by this". So a public company can not partake in profit-generating skill development because it may expose the toxicity of senior executives. Herein lies a systemic problem. To paraphrase, "we know we are doing a bad thing but we don't want to look at it, don't want to expose it, and don't want to treat it." It is not just one organisation saying this, we get variations of the same sentiment a lot. An awful lot.

This is a board-level problem. Simply put, if a CEO is not committed to developing a company-wide competence that will very likely improve organisational performance, then one that does should be found.


Superficial treatment

"7 (or 10, or 14) ways to create psychological safety in the workplace", posted on the intranet, is not a solution. Organisations that have normalised toxicity have to reverse it. It will take time. It will require dedication and perseverance. It will produce casualties. But it will definitely produce results.

Inculcating psychological safety has a raft of obvious benefits:

  • People, whom companies spend a fortune on for their skills and experience, will actually contribute to collective intelligence
  • Fear will be replaced with seeking and generating better thinking, collaboration and innovation 
  • Good people will stay, while those who rely on aggression will depart
  • The workplace will become more vibrant and alive, people will enjoy their work more 
  • Employees won't take as much stress and anxiety home with them, they will become physically and mentally healthier


How to get started: 

  1. Understand what it is and how to foster it. Read up. Go to courses.
  2. Start with any team. Get buy-in. Enlist internal influencers. Spread the knowledge via the social network of the organisation, face to face, action by action (we refer to this as "preparing the soil").
  3. Identify blockers, those people who actively undermine safety. Either convert them, work around them, or get rid of them.


Post by John Dobbin