The Tiptoeing Spouse

A tiny domestic drama about psychological safety

Posted Apr 03, 2019

Spouse 1 overhears Spouse 2 giving directions to Alice, their dinner guest. “We’re at 504 Buford Street. See you around 7:00.”

But it’s actually Buford Avenue, not Buford Street. Spouse 1 does a quick mental calculation, weighing the chances that Alice might get lost against the risk of spousal irritation. In a flash, a dozen tiny considerations present themselves: what are the chances that there is a Buford Street near here? Spouse 2 reacts unpredictably to being corrected; sometimes appreciative, and sometimes annoyed. On top of everything, that morning has already seen a few tension-ridden interactions.

After pursuing both scenarios to their conclusion in a split second — taking into account the history of the morning, the history of the marriage, and who knows what other unconscious factors — Spouse 1 decides to say nothing. That evening, Alice calls from Buford Street. She’s twenty minutes away, in the next town over.

Daniel Gonzalez/Unsplash
Poor Alice.
Source: Daniel Gonzalez/Unsplash

A speed bump, at worst. But what if this story was set in an air traffic tower or an operating room, rather than a kitchen?

In my writing, I detail cases where the lack of psychological safety has been a factor in cataclysmic business scandal (Wells Fargo, 2017), deadly plane crashes (Tenerife, 1977), and fatal dosing errors (Dana Farber, 1995).  

Psychological safety describes an environment in which people feel empowered (and even obligated) to raise issues, concerns, and bad news, without fear of recrimination, humiliation, or backlash.  In research on effective teams at Google, psychological safety emerged as the primary characteristic the most effective teams had in common. 

In the parable above, Spouse 1’s lack of psychological safety led to a failure to speak up, and the result was a preventable error that wasted everyone’s time. The mental energy needed for that split-second analysis could have been spent more fruitfully on almost anything else. This is a completely pedestrian example — and deliberately so — of how the lack of psychological safety can lead us astray. 

And yet so many managers have created conditions where the talent they have hired is afraid to speak up. They’ve fostered an atmosphere where it’s virtually impossible for them to find out anything they don’t already know, including the fact that they are being kept in the dark.  

If, as a manager, you see yourself in Spouse 2, congratulations: You have already beaten the odds, just by recognizing it. Here’s some advice on how to create psychological safety and build a fearless team, department, or organization.  

  • Make a clean sweep of old patterns. Make it known on your team that you don’t have all the answers and that you want input. Say it over and over, mean it, and act on it, until you are believed.
  • Admit fallibility. That way, when you do fall, it won’t seem such a long drop.
  • Cop to your mistakes and failings. If you don’t, you will hear very little from your employees about theirs.  
  • When you hear things you don’t want to hear, respond rather than react. Offer up constructive guidance, ask questions that convey a true spirit of curiosity, and flush out the facts without blaming or shaming.
  • Take as little personally as humanly possible. A correction or simple voicing of a concern does not equal an attack on the totality of your competence. An environment where people speak freely has its hazards, to be sure, so don’t compound them by being prickly.
  • Root out fear wherever you find it. It has no place in a modern (read: knowledge-intensive) organization. 
  • Be consistent. As the saying goes, trust arrives on foot but leaves on a horse.  
  • Keep at it. It can take some time to turn the dynamics of a team around. Start now, start somewhere, start anywhere.

In a future post, I will have some advice for Spouse 1 and all those who tend not to speak up. You are not powerless, nor are you off the hook.