Cultivating Psychological Safety

The benefits of building a psychological safe workspace

Why do some organizations succeed in their efforts to promote candor while others fail, and what is preventing people from speaking up in the first place?

Amy C. Edmondson in her book, Teaming highlights four primary fears why individuals elect to remain silent, they do not want to risk being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive by their coworkers or superiors (Edmondson, 2012). In the military the relationship of hierarchy and its ability to inhibit the voices of subordinates also plays a critical role. So how can leaders mitigate the common fears of their subordinates and reduce the influence of an organization’s hierarchy to get its members to speak up?

Image Credit: Stock image from Amazon.com

Leaders looking to create psychological safety in their organizations should be accessible and approachable, acknowledge the limits or current knowledge, be willing to display fallibility, invite participation and highlight failures as learning opportunities (Edmondson, 2012). This is not an all-inclusive list but a starting point. Edmondson dedicates an entire chapter to this concept in her book and more recently published a second book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth devoted entirely to this subject. 

In order to tackle the tricky issue of increasing participation from subordinates in heavy hierarchal organizations, leaders must remain cognizant of when and how they choose to speak. “When people in power speak authoritatively and speak first, it often results in greater self-censorship by others, even if this was not the original intention” (Edmondson, 2012). This is where inviting participation comes into play. If you’re a leader in an organization give thought to when and how you speak. Sometimes it may be best to pause and ask others to voice their ideas before adding your input. Also, leaders should use their position to create space for those less likely to compete for the floor by asking them by name to join into the discussion.

Psychological safe environments should not be confused with work places that accept employee deficiencies in attempt to maintain harmonious relationships. Bob Iger, former CEO of The Walt Disney company summarizes it best in his memoir Ride of Lifetime “Be decent to people. Treat everyone with fairness and empathy. This doesn’t mean you lower your expectations or convey the message that mistakes don’t matter. It means that you create an environment where people know you’ll hear them out, they you’re emotionally consistent and fair-minded, and that they’ll be given a second chances for honest mistakes” (Iger, 2019). 

Like many components of leadership, creating and maintaining a psychological safe workspace is a continuous process and is a result of many contributing factors. So where to begin? 

When I first took command the company I inherited was in rough shape. The previous commander had been relieved early and the command climate caused unit morale to nosedive to a place that was lower than low. When I assumed command I made several initial changes to address glaring issues and rebuild the organization. Surprisingly the one which had the longest impact was something I never expected.

To combat the lingering fear and resentment towards the previous commander which was still in the minds of my soldiers, one of my initial steps was to create an inviting space where any one, regardless of rank or position, could come for a break. I established a puzzle table in the middle of my command post where I would provide 1000-2000 piece puzzles for unit members to complete as a team. The table had rules (no more than 10 minutes per person at a time) and a little egg timer (in the shape of a Death Star) so that people could ensure they didn’t lose track of time or do too much of the puzzle by themselves. The table was an instant success. People started getting out of their offices and talking with both other staff sections as well as with their company leadership. The Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major were also both active participants. After the first 2000-piece puzzle was completed (seen below) I framed it and hung it in the command post as a symbol of what the unit could achieve when it worked together toward a common goal.  It is a little cheesy? Sure! But did it work? You bet it did! 

Image Credit: Buffalo Games

I didn’t know it then, but I was taking the first steps at creating a psychological safety environment for my organization. Over the course of my tenure as company commander the unit completed more than eight 1000-piece puzzles providing multiple opportunities for chance encounters for members of different departments to interact with one another. This interaction established a strong foundation and led to the strengthening of unit relationships. 

The concept of psychological safety is not new, with ample writings and research on the topic. Since psychological safety is known to promote innovation it is no surprise that both LEGO Group and Pixar Animation, companies with a reputation for innovative achievements, incorporate concepts of psychological safety into the foundations of their organization’s culture.

Former president and co-founder of Pixar animation Ed Catmull explained Pixar’s organizational philosophy as, “you get creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone” (Catmull, 2008).  What he is describing is an environment where phycological safety is not only present, but necessary for the continued success of the company. 

Image Credit: Lego.com

To foster the exchange and promotion of ideas, LEGO Group introduced an initiative called “The Leadership Playground” within their organization. This initiative focuses on gathering employees of diverse positions and backgrounds together in small groups to discuss topics of leadership within the company.  Loren Shuster, EVP, Chief People Officer, and Head of Corporate Affairs describes it as, “psychologically safe place for colleagues to demonstrate bravery, focus, and curiosity.” At LEGO, “the belief [is] that leadership is for everyone. No matter where in the business or at what level, they said that people needed to feel safe to speak their mind and should truly care about the LEGO Group mission of inspiring the builders of tomorrow” (Aziz, 2020).

Do you feel like you where you work is one where psychological safety thrives or one that could benefit from its incorporation? Implementing concepts of psychological safety can begin at any level. Do your part to make your organization better. 

Works Cited:

Aziz, A. (2020, April 15). Lego Donates $50 Million To Support Families During COVID-19. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/afdhelaziz/2020/04/15/lego-donates-50-million-to-support-families-during-covid19/

Catmull, E. (2008). How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/09/how-pixar-fosters-collective-creativityLinks to an external site.

Edmondson, Amy C. (n.d.). Teaming How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Harvard Business School.

Iger, R. (2019). The ride of a lifetime: Lessons learned from 15 years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. New York: Random House.

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