Psychological Safety: How Pioneers Create Engaged Workforces

Joost
Written by
- 14 min read

Imagine working in a team where it’s safe to take risks—in a team where mistakes are not held against you. Imagine working with colleagues who can raise tough problems and issues with people who accept others as being different, who feel safe to ask others for help, and who value you and your unique talents.

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If you recognize yourself (and your team) in this description, you can assume you work in a "psychologically safe" working environment.

The concept of psychological safety

Back in 1990, William A. Kahn described psychological safety as "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career."

Subsequently, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson brought the concept to the masses. She describes psychological safety as "a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up, and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas."

The concept has proven its importance in engaging workplaces. Perhaps 2020 is the year when the idea of 'psychological safety' is adopted by the management world for good. And that would be a good thing.

Three avoidable disasters

Most workplaces lack high levels of psychological safety. It is common, today, for employees to feel anxious about speaking up and sharing concerns, questions or ideas. This is the consequence of low levels of psychological safety.

The danger is not only that employees suffer, but so do performance, quality and workplace safety. This mix of negative outcomes is a recipe for disaster. Let me share three examples to make this claim more telling:

1. NASA's Challenger Shuttle Disaster

Lois Kelly and Carmen Medina described a classic case at NASA in 'Rebels at Work'. They wrote: "In 1986, engineers at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) warned that critical components in the Space Shuttle Challenger had a potentially fatal flaw and would not function well in cold temperatures. On a cold January morning, NASA officials decided not to heed these concerns and approved a launch. Within 73 seconds of takeoff, Challenger broke apart, killing seven crew members—as an estimated 17 percent of all Americans watched on TV. An investigative commission appointed by (then) President Ronald Reagan found NASA's organization culture and decision-making processes greatly contributed to the catastrophe."

2. GM's Ignition Switch Crisis

Kelly and Medina offer another classic example from General Motors. "Responding to the ignition switch crisis that led to the recall of millions of vehicles, General Motors CEO Mary Barra publicly stated that the company's corporate culture had helped suppress the voices of employees alarmed about safety issues. Speaking up at meetings was not safe. In 2014, the auto manufacturer admitted that it knew about an ignition switch safety issue for more than 10 years before it issued a recall. In the interim, at least 54 crashes occured and up to 100 people died. As 2014 unfolded, General Motors issued 47 more recalls covering more than 20 million vehicles. Following an internal investigation, Barra said, 'The lack of action was a result of broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem... Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch'."

3. VW's Dieselgate Scandal

Edmondson gives another example from the car industry in her book called 'The Fearless Organization'. She describes the outdated and failing culture of Volkswagen where performance was driven by fear and intimidation, leading ultimately to the Dieselgate scandal. However, the culture of fear and intimidation was not born in a vacuum. It was rather passed on from one generation of leaders to the next, as some kind of best-practice. Edmondson writes: "He (VW's ex-CEO Martin Winterkorn) was the protégé of the immensely powerful Ferdinand Piëch, VW’s former chairman, CEO, and top shareholder. A visionary automotive engineer, Piëch had been convinced that terrorizing subordinates was the way to achieve profitable design." But just as Winterkorn's beliefs about how to motivate people were passed on from his mentor, Piëch’s management beliefs were passed on from his mentor, his grandfather Ferdinand Porsche. "Porsche, for his part, was hugely inspired in his efforts by Henry Ford, and in the mid 1930’s travelled to Detroit to study Ford’s River Rouge factory complex, eventually using what he’d learned to build the first automotive assembly line in Germany. This was still the golden age for the manufacturing industry, when fear and intimidation were, arguably, a proven managerial technique to motivate speed and accuracy in factory workers."

The same outdated recipe

In all these cases we see the same recipe; hierarchically and bureaucratically run organizations operating with command-and-control, trying to motivate by fear and intimidation.

We all know this recipe worked wonders during the industrial age, like on the assembly line at Ford. However, less people (especially in management) seem to be aware that this recipe is a pretty bad idea now.

Because the experience of having an idea, suggestion, or question but not feeling able to share it or listened to can be extremely frustrating. This not only leads to disengagement, but also to serious risks for the business. It can even lead to painful public failure as the cases at NASA, GM and VW illustrate.

What do pioneers do?

Now we have seen what not to do, let's turn to the workplace pioneers who are able to create engagement via high levels of psychological safety. How do they make people feel safe to share concerns, questions and ideas?

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Default trust

Edmondson talks about Barry-Wehmiller as a posterboy of a 'fearless organization'. Berry-Wehmiller, led by CEO Bob Chapman, is a global supplier of manufacturing technologies and services. It was founded in the USA in the mid-1880s. Today it is a $3 billion organization, employing 12,000 people around the globe. Its guiding principles state: 'We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.' That means they care for team members, and use tangible measures of employee well-being which "have proved to be a sure recipe for establishing a psychologically safe workplace where learning and growth thrive."

They pioneered a people-centered approach to business that created an "environment of trust, meaning, and pride that celebrates and brings out the best in each person. Trust – employees feeling trusted by management – was key", writes Edmondson. "Time clocks, break bells, and locking inventory in cages inhibited that trust. Chapman describes immediately getting rid of what he calls 'trust-destroying and demeaning practices' inappropriate for responsible adults."

Removing “trust-destroying and demeaning practices”, and establishing a “default trust culture”, is something we encounter at other Bucket List pioneers-for example at K2K and NER Group in Bilbao. This pioneering consultancy has supported over 70 companies (mostly poorly performing) in their transformation to more progressive and better-performing workplaces. CEO Koldo Saratxaga told us "When we work with a new client we first get rid of the old command-and-control mindset. One of the most important principles of our approach is to see everyone in the workplace as equal, from the guy that sweeps the floor to the owner. So, from day one, all privileges are eliminated. No private offices, no executive dining rooms, no reserved parking, nor any bonuses or incentives for individual performance, and no special access to information. We also remove all the old control mechanisms, such as the clock that monitored people as they enter and leave the factory. Everyone is trusted and everyone has a good degree of freedom, and a corresponding amount of responsibility."

K2K managed to transform dozens of poorly performing organizations into progressive firms. And Barry-Wehmiller uses the same formula. Edmondson writes: "Barry-Wehmiller developed a rigorous and well-documented approach to systematizing its values and methods, which created psychological safety as a by-product. That may be because the company has flourished by acquiring poorly performing companies and making them profitable since the mid-1980s. The majority were companies that provided equipment and services to industries such as packaging or paper manufacturing. Each acquisition – and as of this writing, there are over 100 – has been another opportunity to articulate and develop Barry-Wehmiller’s culture and vision."

This in turn reminds us of a story Zhang Ruimin, CEO of the Chinese Haier Group, told us some years ago about Haier's 'stunned fish' tactic of the 1990s. Zhang knew that to keep growing, he would have to produce a wider range of products. So, they made a decision to buy out loss-making factories. Then Zhang used a similar strategy to Chapman’s. Haier acquired only factories that ticked two boxes: a good product, and bad management. By changing the management style at these factories, Haier swiftly made them profitable, and without spending a lot of money. Zhang knew how important it was to listen to employees. He told us: “As long as the staff are prepared to use their talents, management is successful. In the ’90s, our main goal was to build a world-famous brand. We had to give employees space to contribute.’’

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Safe to speak up

Another 'fearless organization' Edmondson talks about is DaVita Kidney Care and its CEO Kent Thiry. DaVita is a leading American provider of dialysis services for 200,000 patients around the world. Their telling motto is "One for All and All for One". Edmondson writes: "Hired in 1999 to rescue the company from the brink of ruin, Thiry is credited with having turned it around by building a set of values and a culture that combine to create a high level of psychological safety. Much like Bob Chapman at Barry-Wehmiller, Thiry believes in fostering a community where people at every level of the organization have a voice, and are developed as leaders." At Barry-Wehmiller you will find so-called 'listening sessions' where team members are asked to speak their mind. This only happens when psychological safety is high—when it is safe to speak up. DaVita has a similar practice. "Thiry leads a town hall question and answer session, where he is willing to be vulnerable (often admitting, for example, that he doesn’t know the answer to a question) and open, entertaining direct questions about wages and promotions", writes Edmondon.

We encountered similar practices during our visit to UKTV. Their former CEO Darren Childs also told us about the introduction of weekly town-hall meetings to create more psychology safety by sharing adversity and mistakes. Childs told us: "We wanted to give our employees the chance to ask the leadership questions. Nothing was taboo. We also wanted everybody to receive all relevant information. But Childs noticed that eventually people were not comfortable in bringing up the touchier subjects. “That was one of the most difficult things,’’ said Childs, “convincing people that it really is OK to ask anything because we want to be completely transparent.’’ He came up with a simple but effective solution: a post-box decorated with a prominent white question mark. Anyone with a question, or wanting to share matters of a sensitive nature, was asked to put it in the box. It would be opened only during the meetings. All questions were answered there and then, with no pre-prepared, politically correct answers or corporate propaganda. This became a powerful tool for creating psychological safety.

Safe to fail

Just as it should be safe to speak up, it should also be safe to fail. Some pioneering organizations go as far as actually rewarding people for failure. They believe that intelligent failure is an important aspect of their success, and encourage people to make failure acceptable. Edmondson writes: "Although the idea of rewarding people for failure may seem to create a problematic incentive, if we look closely enough we can see its business logic, especially for a research organization that pursues big, audacious ideas."

At Google X, another 'fearless organization', they try to make it safe to fail. "Astra Teller, CEO of Google X, believes that it's a superior economic strategy to reward people for killing unpromising projects than it is to let unworkable ideas languish in purgatory for years and soak up resources. In other words, you have to fail at many attempts before coming up with a success," writes Edmondson. Teller says in his 2016 TED talk: “You cannot yell at people to force them to fail fast. People resist. They worry. 'What will happen to me if I fail. Will people laugh at me? Will I be fired?...' The only way to get people to work on big, risky things – audacious ideas – and have them run at all the hardest parts of the problem first is if you make that the path of least resistance for them. We work hard at X to make it safe to fail. Teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager, me in particular. They get promoted for it. We have bonused every single person on teams that ended their projects, from teams as small as two to teams of more than 30.”

But there is more that Google X does to create a safe-to-fail environment. Edmondson writes: "X has held an annual celebration to hear testimonials about failed projects. (Failed relationships and personal tragedies are also welcome.) Failed prototypes are placed on a small altar, and people say a few words about what the project meant to them. Employees feel that this ritual helps remove some of the emotional baggage they still carry from investing themselves into something that never came to be." This kind of 'Altar of Failure' reminds me of the practice of Ben & Jerry's called the 'Flavor Graveyard'. Check out the video below.

When we visited Spotify we learned about a similar ethos. Spotify is forever experimenting to stay ahead of the competition. Daniel Ek, the CEO and ex-hacker, has a tongue-in-cheek motto that speaks volumes: "We aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else." Mistakes come naturally enough, but to incorporate the learning from them is the challenge. Teams at Spotify have special Fail Walls to encourage learning from errors and there are internal blogs written to share successes and failures in order to create a culture of psychological safety. Because making mistakes should be acceptable as long as something is learned from errors. It doesn't make sense to make failing at work a taboo. Without failing you'll never learn and you will never truly rise. Failing to fail is the real failure, and that should be taboo.

Trust ≠ Psychological Safety

But what is exactly the difference between trust and psychological safety? Edmondson writes: "Psychological safety is experienced at a group level. People working together tend to have similar perceptions of whether or not the climate is psychologically safe. Trust, on the other hand, refers to interactions between two individuals or parties; trust exists in the mind of an individual and pertains to a specific target individual or organization. For instance, you might trust one colleague but not another."

To create a psychologically safe climate is not easy. As described above, it is not just about being nice to each other. Neither does it mean team members always agree with one another for the sake of keeping the peace. Nor does it imply things are easy or comfortable and that you will never engage in conflict. It is rather the opposite, Edmondson writes. "Psychological safety is about candor, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. It goes without saying that these are vital to learning and innovation. Conflict inevitably arises in any workplace. Psychological safety enables people on different sides of a conflict to speak candidly about what’s bothering them."

Your ideas and practices

A psychologically safe climate at work sets the stage for a more engaged, more collaborative and more challenging workplace. We’ve listed some ideas and practices above.

But what are your ideas for creating psychological safety? What are your tips? How do you create a psychologically safe climate?

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Replies (12)

Frank

Frank

This article is very powerful because of the research and examples.

Some time ago you described a practice of appreciation rounds (https://corporate-rebels.com/meetings/) at the end of meetings. I experimented with this and I have to say it worked really well. Doing it created a better feeling of togetherness. I would recommend it to everyone to try!

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Sarah Morris

Sarah Morris

Yes, I agree. A very powerful and interesting article with some brilliant examples of this in action - and a sobering reminder of the possible consequences of failing to nurture and environment of psychological safety. I have followed your blog and progress since almost the beginning and it is wonderful to see the strides you have made. Congrats on getting the book out there.

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Jenny

Jenny

Great article! Perhaps this is behind the Boing 737 Max disaster as well.

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Tim

Tim

Great article again,
In James kerr his book “legacy” on the all blacks one of his 15 rules is Create a learning environment, leaders create leaders.

In our team we emphasize on; fouten maken mag, as long as people combine it with transparency, ownership and a growth mindset.
Studies on human factors especially in the aviation branch have come up with research that a lot of accidents took place due to strong hierarchy and for example young or in experienced co pilotes who did not feel safe enough to tell the pilot he made a mistake or he missed a blinking alarm signal.
Your article emphasizes this all.

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Dagmar Boettger

Dagmar Boettger

A great article with very impactful examples and arguments. These examples can help us dig deeper into the complex culture topic. What are the factors which shape the behaviours, next to allowing fast failing and making mistakes, to create such a psychological safety culture? How do "leaders" shift their mind from "Fear-creating to fearless" leadership and how can new top executive teams create the ripple effects in existing orgs to move from old to this NEW NOW? In my coaching, I often also refer to the research of Francesca GINO ("Rebel Talent". She describes communication styles and their effects, she describes how searching the new way actively helps orgs create new ways.

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Anila Nair

Anila Nair

Great Article, Joost! I believe it takes one individual to display that there is 'psychological safety', either the leadership team, or the employees.
These conversations always open up opportunities for the employees and leaders to see a wider picture of the situation, whatever the context may be!

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Adrian Brown

Adrian Brown

What a fabulous article.

Once again, it demonstrates to me why I resonate so much with the work you do. My leadership model called NICE Leadership® (Nurture, Inspire, Challenge and Empower) is about creating a working environment that delivers psychological and physical safety for everyone from the leadership to the most junior.

The mental or 'mindset' aspects of the environment have been overlooked for far too long. It takes real courage to stand up for a servant leadership culture, even when you are the boss. So many wrongly describe a servant leader as weak or soft, and yet authentic servant leadership is one of the most courageous and rigorous forms of leadership.

For several years I did not include the concept of challenge in my model until I realised that that skill, to effectively and compassionately challenge individuals to step up, reach up, strive up their performance was one of the most 'missing' leadership skills.

Thank you for a great article.

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John Laban

John Laban

Feels like open source communities!

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Fantastic article

Fantastic article

This is a profound article that is informed, inspiring and balanced. It exposes some of the corporate BS seen across the country currently (2020). So many old models are being forced through corporations, productivity and people's health are suffering as a result of accepting outdated models of leadership.

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curt blattner

curt blattner

Psychological safety is the single most important variable for high performance. It is also THE crucial step for avoiding self-destruction of our society. The cooperation contract enables a team to act as one entity and for psychological safety to emerge in relation to the rest of the organization and the environment. Read about it in THE HEARTBEAT OF EXCELLENCE or THE DESIGN OF CHANGING SUSTAINABLY THE SWISS WAY, available now in Europe and as of April 14th in the US.

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