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Leaders Should Make It Safe to Speak Up

Low psychological safety and its fallout are in the news again.

Key points

  • A workplace that lacks psychological safety can have deadly consequences; 20 years of data and case studies bear this out.
  • When employees face impossible choices there will be opportunities lost and damage done.
  • It's up to leaders to create an environment in which concerns can be aired, without fear of reprisal.

In a CNN documentary that aired March 28, 2021, Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator under President Trump, noted the "uncomfortable conversation" she had with him about pandemic messaging after a CNN interview in August of 2020. As she recounted, “Everyone in the White House was upset with that interview and the clarity I brought to the epidemic.” She went on to say that, after the first 100,000 American deaths, “all of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

The reaction of many has been a lack of sympathy, even anger—a narrative along the lines of how Birx should have said something to steer the pandemic response in the right direction, preventing unnecessary loss of life. A rare exception to the harsh criticism came from former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who defended Birx on Twitter, noting thoughtfully that it took courage for her to stay in her role.

N. Boghossian, with permission
Leaders: don't create impossible choices.
Source: N. Boghossian, with permission

I teach leadership at a business school and study why workers fail to speak up in their organizations. Watching the documentary made one thing painfully clear: Birx was describing a psychologically unsafe workplace. Such workplaces can have devastating consequences. Few statements epitomize a psychologically unsafe work environment better than Birx’s comment, “Everyone inside [the White House] was waiting for me to make a misstep so they could remove me from the task force.”

I began studying psychological safety, the belief that speaking up will not lead to humiliation or punishment, almost by accident, 25 years ago. In a study of hospital teams, my data showed an unexpected relationship between better teamwork and higher error rates. Ultimately, I was able to show that psychological safety in the better teams made it easier to report error; the actual error rates remained hidden, but better teams were more candid because they were determined to catch and correct errors in a timely way.

In contrast, poor teams hide their problems and remain stuck. Since then, I’ve seen the same themes play out in every industry. When bad news is not shared, solutions cannot be found. A lack of psychological safety in the White House was on display last year as well, during the infamous 50-second video of Birx, seated to the side of the podium as she slowly cowered in what appeared to be a mix of shame and dismay while President Trump offered the idea of injecting disinfectant into people to attack the coronavirus. Many employees experience these emotions, on top of moral distress—the pain people feel when they can’t speak up against something that feels fundamentally wrong because the threat of reprisal feels too large.

The consequences of a lack of psychological safety are not limited to moral distress; other mental health consequences such as anxiety, trauma, and depression may all occur. At Volkswagen, a lack of psychological safety led engineers to design software to cheat regulators rather than tell their bosses the truth about their diesel engine, leading to scandal, millions of dollars in legal fees and fines, and an increase in asthma rates in children. In hospitals, it can lead to failures to correct wrong-site surgery and even preventable patient deaths. And consider the tragic consequence of what happened to Boeing when employees felt unable to express their concerns about safety problems in the 737 Max.

I wish these stories of workplace silence were exceptional. They are not. And a lack of psychological safety is not new in government workplaces, either—for instance, we’re now learning, as criticism of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo expands, that many failed to speak up about inappropriate workplace behavior in his State House. But during a global pandemic, in particular, when politicians serve as leaders and prime decision-makers for public health initiatives that affect millions, psychological safety is critical.

Organizational behavior research shows clear performance advantages for teams and organizations with psychologically safe environments. As a result, a growing number of leaders in the private and public sector are taking seriously the need to ensure that employees' voices are heard—both to promote innovation and to prevent scandals and avoidable tragedies. Future investigations will determine what portion of the lives lost in the current pandemic fell into the category of avoidable tragedy. In the meantime, we cannot afford to have expert voices silenced, nor can we afford to blame them for their silence. It doesn’t help.

And the responsibility for ensuring voice lies with those at the top. From a distance, it’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is to speak up and disagree with the boss. But it’s human nature not to want to ruffle feathers. We don’t want to be Cassandra bringing bad news. We instinctively recognize that messengers get shot. This is particularly the case for women and people of color who are even less empowered to speak up. Even in the absence of bullies or bosses who send the clear message that pushback is unwelcome, people naturally hold back—feeling somehow that that dissent is rude. As a result, as Bob Sutton of Stanford puts it, “bosses live in a fool’s paradise” where they can easily view silence as agreement, remaining blind to what is said behind their backs.

Birx should not be blamed for her choices, as, ultimately, in psychologically unsafe workplaces, many employees are not given much of a choice—speak up and risk reprisal (including termination) or stay silent and keep a job.

Instead, we should view Birx’s experience as an opportunity to ask ourselves: What can we do, in the organizations in which we work and lead, to improve psychological safety? And what should we be demanding of all of our leaders, not just those in politics?

I’m left hopeful that President Biden’s own pledges about not tolerating bullying in his administration and asking his staff to speak up with concerns directly are aligned with prioritizing psychological safety and courage.

After all, psychological safety and courage are two sides of the same (priceless) coin—one which, in a different set of circumstances, may indeed have circumvented thousands of unnecessary deaths.

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