Psychological Safety in the Workplace: A Leadership Consideration
8/01/2021 - Abstract
Recent social movements such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter or #TimesUp highlight the need for organisations to pay closer attention to their workplace cultures. An organisation’s culture thrives in both the spoken and unspoken norms and rhythms of organisational life. The culture reflects the real, as opposed to espoused mission, values and moral compass. It creates the environment that determines whether employees feel comfortable and safe to express their views or opinions.
Psychological safety is defined as being a shared belief that a team environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. When experienced an employee feels empowered to speak up and voice their opinion about habitual non-productive behaviours, raise concerns about proposed new initiatives and uncomfortable management or policy decisions. They feel comfortable expressing their deepest thoughts and values, challenging the status quo, asking for help, feedback or further information, in the belief that they will not be negatively impacted personally or professionally. They take action safe in the knowledge that their actions will contribute to improvements in the quality of workplace operations.
Often referred to as ‘voice behaviours’, this type of workplace behaviour has been shown in organisational behavioural studies, to be essential in helping organisations to learn, grow, transform and evolve. Voice behaviours are effective levers and measures in organisational change, creating environments which are not confined to habitual, risky or outdated behaviours or methods of operating. They generate environments where continuous learning takes place, and the active sharing of new ideas can occur bringing about greater creativity and innovation.
“Silence – when voice was possible – rarely announces itself! The moment passes,
and no one is the wiser except the person who held back.”
It is part of the human condition to protect ourselves and, in psychologically unsafe environments where people fear they may be considered ignorant, incompetent, disruptive or disagreeable, they may opt for the quick personal win of silence.
A psychologically safe workplace does not mean non pressured or overly friendly, saccharine and sugar-coated work environments. It does not mean that errors or inappropriate behaviour will not be called out. Often high performing, psychologically safe groups appear to make more mistakes – they don’t – they just report more and learn. Psychological safety makes it possible for people to believe that the benefits of speaking up or asking for help outweighs the costs. They are environments where meaningful and often robust discussion among team members can occur. The types of discussion that enables the early detection of challenges, problems and achievements to be explored without individuals retreating into personal self-protection, obfuscation or defending language and behaviours. Empowered, psychologically safe employees look for opportunities to learn and create positive impacts in their work and that of the team.
The behaviour of managers and team leaders who have responsibility for effective team performance has a direct impact on the perceptions of psychological safety at work. If a manager perceives the team has a psychologically safe environment but team members believe otherwise, team effectiveness and performance suffer. However, if managers consistently treat their team members with dignity and respect throughout everyday interactions, they signal it is safe for team members to use voice behaviours.
Often referred to as the Athena Leadership Values, deriving from the work of John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio and their global research study sample of sixty four thousand respondents, it is the being human management behaviours that sit at the heart of successful psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces. These important management behaviours include: being humble, patient and inclusive, adapting when circumstances change, consistently demonstrating candour, empathy and openness, building connectivity and collaborations. As Ed Schein, Professor of organisational psychology and management so succinctly summarises – “here and now humility” is what matters most.
Leadership that is strong and considerate, not strong and ruthless is now an essential requisite for an empowered inclusive, psychologically safe workplace culture. This blog post may be easy to read, but it is hard to demonstrate regularly and consistently in practice. As recent social movements have indicated, we don’t really have a choice; to achieve leadership and team success, it’s time for us all to upgrade our leadership thinking and behaviour and to do so will need us to be courageous.
About the authors
Mark Fryer is our Commercial Director and Sue Liburd MBE DL is a Non Executive Director of ABSTRACT and Managing Director of Sage Blue. She is an award-winning businesswoman, human capital innovation consultant and business mentor. Sue won the Champion of Inclusion Award at the 2019 Inclusive Companies Awards and she is a recognised voice in the promotion of the importance and understanding of equality as a driver for business success.
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