Improving Psychological Safety

John Bull
January 2, 2020

COUNTING THE COST OF SILENCE

On a foggy day at Los Rodeos airport in Tenerife in 1977, two members of the crew on KLM’s flight 4805 wonder if their captain Jacob VanZanton has misinterpreted a message from air traffic control.  The control tower have given them a route plan for their flight ‘when cleared for take off’. The captain has interpreted this as clearance and has started accelerating down the runway. First officer Meur enquires if they have clearance, and flight engineer Schieuder wonders aloud if the Pan Am flight he has heard speaking on the radio is still at the other end of the runway. VanZanton, replies to both with irritation ‘yes, yes, we’re going’. Despite the obvious concerns that can be heard in their voices, both Meur and Schieuder decide to say nothing further.

Why on earth, when the stakes are so high, do they stay silent?

Two factors are likely to have contributed to their hesitation to speak up further. In addition to VanZanton’s obvious annoyance at their questions, they know he is one of the most experienced commercial pilots in the world. Just two months earlier, he had in fact passed Meur for his revalidation as a pilot.

By the time they see the Pan Am jet, it is too late. The jets collide, killing 583 people, including everyone on board the KLM flight. To this day, it remains the worst aviation accident in history.

While this is a dramatic example, the issues it highlights are incredibly common. People with hold important thoughts all the time, and every time they do, they rob themselves and colleagues of an opportunity to learn. A head of IT thinks a new marketing campaign is silly, but says nothing because it’s not their role. A manager recognises a behaviour which is holding a member of their team back, but doesn’t want to offend them. A junior doctor is asked to complete a procedure they don’t feel ready for, but doesn’t want to appear incompetent, so doesn’t ask for help.

WHY PEOPLE HOLD BACK

We learn from a very young age to actively manage how we are seen by others – particularly others whose opinions we care about. We have absolutely no desire to appear ignorant, intrusive, incompetent, disrespectful or negative. So we err on the side of caution and say nothing.

What we’re talking about here is psychological safety, and what happens when it is absent.  

Amy Edmundson, a Harvard professor who has pioneered research in this area, defines psychological safety as ‘a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk taking.’ A belief that our voice is welcome, and that we will not be judged. A trust that our contribution will be welcomed, even if it turns out not to be right.

WHAT PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY ENABLES

When you create this feeling of psychological safety, and people feel encouraged to speak up, really good things start to happen.

  • You immediately get more ideas. Not all great. But some are. Some are game changers. Like the code that enables Google’s AdWords, which came from Jeff Dean who was not even working on the advertising project. He spotted some issues in the code and assumed his input would be welcome. He worked on it over a weekend, and emailed some suggestions to the team. No one asked him, and he didn’t ask permission. Last year his code earned google £90 billion. We live more and more in a knowledge economy, where we depend on ideas and insights from as many people as possible to propel us forward. Somewhere, someone in your organisation has an idea you don’t know about that could transform your performance.
  • The pace of learning and improvement goes through the roof. People admit mistakes, admit what they’re struggling with, and reach out for help. People also feel more comfortable challenging each other and offering opinions on each other's work.
  • You have more eyes and brains open to potential issues. This is critical. A couple of years back we launched a little book of insights in which all the illustrations of the leaders in the book were white and male. A number of our team noticed it and spoke up. I don’t think it was easy for them to speak up. We were excited about the book. They knew we’d spent a lot of money on printing it. But they took the risk to express their view. Thank goodness.

HOW PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY WORKS ALONGSIDE ACCOUNTABILITY AND CHALLENGE

One of the questions we often get asked is does a focus on psychological safety make it difficult to insist on high standards and hold people to account. Can you ever have too much psychological safety?

It’s an interesting question, and its error lies in assuming there is a trade-off between the two, as though we need to make a choice as to where we are on a continuum.

In fact it is when you combine psychological safety with motivation for high standards and accountability that you start to unlock great performance gains.

Amy uses the below diagram to make the point:

Comfort Zone: If you create an environment of psychological safety without a drive for high standards, there is definitely a risk people will become complacent and stop stretching themselves.

Anxiety Zone: Equally though, when leaders demand high standards without allowing people to share what they’re struggling with, bad things happen. First of all people suffer. But their fear of talking openly about what they’re struggling with also gets in the way of important learning. People hide bad news that the leaders don’t want to hear. This is what happened in the banks behind the financial collapse, and it’s what led to VW’s diesel emissions scandal.

Learning Zone: When you combine the two – ambition with an openness to honest conversations about the issues – people work together to overcome them and you get rapid learning.

One of the best examples of an organisation in this ‘learning zone’ was NASA during the Apollo space programme. At the outset, relative to Russia’s programme, NASA were not very good, and they had no idea how they would succeed. Kennedy’s challenge to put a Man on the moon by the end of the decade inspired some of the greatest minds to go and work there – irrespective of gender, race or background. Unusually for America at the time, what mattered most to key leaders like George Low was your ideas. They shared the challenges they were working on with as many people as possible – including outside organisations. They worked hard to figure out safe ways to fail, using simulators and unmanned missions. And they debriefed every mission for days, to squeeze out as much learning as possible.

It is a sober reminder of how hard we have to work at maintaining a climate of psychological safety, that just 15 years later an investigation at NASA into the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, revealed at least one engineer had grave concerns prior to the ill-fated launch as to whether the O-rings would work properly at sub-zero temperatures. He had tried to speak up, but was encouraged to keep quiet by his manager. It is heartening to hear that the new Director at NASA was one of the first people to contact Amy after she published her book, to see what they could learn from her work.

By now I hope we have convinced you of the importance of psychological safety. The final and most important question is what can we do as leaders to nurture it?

FOUR THINGS WE CAN DO AS LEADERS TO BUILD PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY:

While people wanting to protect how they are seen, and not wanting to offend is natural, there are some surprisingly simple things we can do to immediately improve it. These ideas can be applied whatever your level in the organisation

  1. Framing – convincing people of the importance of speaking up. Saying things like ‘we need everyone’s minds on this.’ Or ‘We’re going to make mistakes, that’s fine, we just need to learn from them.’ Kieran Read, the recently retired captain of the All Blacks, used to make a point of telling new members of the team that while it was natural to be in awe of the environment and the senior players, part of their role was to bring in fresh ideas and new perspectives. He explicitly said he wanted their ideas and observations from day one.
  2. Ask questions to provoke people’s thinking and encourage them to share. As we’ve already explored, speaking up can feel risky. However, when we seek people’s input with a question, it turns this dynamic on its head. It actually makes it feel more risky in terms of how we’re perceived, to not speak up and share our ideas.
  3. Show appreciation when people speak up. This is not always easy. Sometimes you don’t agree with what they’re saying, and sometimes you don’t like what you hear. You can ask powerful questions all you like; if people see that contributing has a negative consequence, they will return to the default of silence very quickly. You can however still show appreciation whilst disagreeing. In fact it’s vital we do, so people learn why their idea might not work or their observation isn’t appropriate. Listen, and ask some questions to check you really understand. Thank them for their input, and then explain why you disagree or think it won’t work.
  4. Focus on building high trust relationships. This is particularly important for encouraging psychological safety between people in a team. The more we trust our colleagues, the more open we feel we can be. One of the fastest ways to build this trust is by encouraging people to share something that makes them a little vulnerable. One of our favourite questions is asking people to share ‘something that has shaped who they are, and how this has shaped them’. This can literally change the level of psychological safety in a team in minutes.

SOME POSSIBLE NEXT STEPS:

  1. Turn your biggest challenges that you’d like input from the team on into questions, and share them. Start a conversation. And praise them for making a contribution.
  2. Evaluate the quality of psychological safety and candour in your culture right now. Take our 6 minute ‘culture of candour’ questionnaire, and we will email you a summary report, benchmarking you against other organisations and offering some recommendations. Click here.
  3. Train your leaders in how to combine psychological safety with effective challenge and accountability. If you’d like to discuss how we can help you with this, email me directly on john.bull@managementfutures.co.uk
  4. If you would be interested in an open one day workshop on courageous conversations – combining psychological safety with accountability – which we are launching in April; then please register your interest with us via info@managementfutures.co.uk

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