Unlocking the Power of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety may turn out to be the most powerful driver for business agility, resilience and innovation” (Accenture)

Corporates are becoming increasingly alive to the term “psychological safety”, a concept which has gained significant attention in recent years, being embraced by the likes of NASA, Google, Microsoft and Toyota.  It is a critical concept that can make or break the success of a team or organisation.  So, what is psychological safety and why is it so crucial?

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety refers to a culture where individuals in a group or organisation will not be punished or humiliated for ‘speaking up’ with ideas, views or questions (Professor Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School). It is a culture where employees feel safe to take risks, express their opinions and challenge the status quo without fear of retaliation.

Recognising the significance of psychological safety and making it a reality is crucial not only for fostering innovation but also for governance, risk and compliance, as it creates an environment where individuals feel empowered to raise concerns or admit mistakes.

What it isn’t

–          Psychological safety is not another ‘woke’ concept. It is not about being ‘nice’. It is also not about suppressing differing opinions or maintaining an unquestioning, harmonious atmosphere. It’s about fostering open dialogue and debate.

–          It is not about maintaining the status quo. Psychological safety encourages innovation.

–         It does not mean avoiding accountability. In fact, it’s about holding individuals and teams to account for their actions and decisions, in a supportive environment.

Next, we take a look at some case studies to understand the real-world implications of psychological safety.

Case Studies: Where Psychological Safety Matters

Wells Fargo: The bank faced a major scandal related to unethical sales practices, including opening unauthorised accounts. The aggressive sales culture and fear of retaliation for not meeting targets are seen as contributing factors.

Boeing 737 Max Crisis: The Boeing 737 Max crisis involved two tragic plane crashes linked to design flaws. It was partly attributed to a culture that discouraged engineers from voicing safety concerns. Employees may have been hesitant to challenge design decisions due to a lack of psychological safety.

WeWork: WeWork’s rapid rise and fall were partly attributed to cultural and leadership issues. Reports of a volatile work environment, erratic decision-making processes, and employees’ fear of expressing concerns suggested a lack of psychological safety.

Uber: Uber faced a series of scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. A lack of psychological safety prevented employees from reporting these issues, resulting in a toxic work environment.

In these cases, the absence of psychological safety created environments where employees felt unable to voice concerns, challenge unethical behaviour, or propose innovative ideas. The consequences were damaging, ranging from reputational damage and financial loss to legal troubles and organisational decline.  There are far more examples.

The Power of Psychological Safety

Substantial scientific research has demonstrated how fostering psychological safety is related to improved team performance, innovation, and employee well-being. Organisations that encourage open communication, trust, and a culture of respect are better equipped to handle challenges and adapt to changing circumstances.

Do you have a psychologically safe workplace? Investigating whether your team, department or organisation operates in a psychologically safe manner might uncover some fascinating information (and potentially some uncomfortable truths). Failing to conduct such an assessment and subsequently implement measures to address any deficiencies may result in an organisational environment characterised by low retention rates and one where employees refrain from ‘speaking up’.

In a landscape where many organisations are just awakening to the science behind psychological safety, those who promptly recognise and embrace this concept will secure a distinct competitive advantage. The urgency lies in being among the pioneers in fostering a psychologically safe environment for lasting success.

Elizabeth Hyde

Director, Hesper GRC

For more information please contactus@hespergrc.com