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The Essential B-Side of Psychological Safety

Are we forgetting something?

Overheard today in a doctor’s waiting room:

“I’ve told them that, and I’ve told them patients have complained. You’d think they’d listen to me, who’s been doing this for 30 years, but no.”

Of course, being the person I am, I tuned right in, hoping not to hear any personal details. I just was curious about the system breakdown I was witnessing. For 20 plus years, I have been writing and teaching about the importance of psychological safety, an atmosphere where people free to speak up with a concern or question without fear of reprisal.

The message appears to be getting out. A Google search for psychological safety turns up countless new mentions each day. It now appears in Glassdoor ratings and self-reports from companies like Wayfair: “We're a highly collaborative, supportive team that values learning, psychological safety and intentional career development.”

In all the excitement about this shiny new object, we may be forgetting something. It’s the metaphorical “B-side” of the disc — the side that occasionally eclipses the A-side. Yes, people have to speak up. But also, someone has to be listening.

“Well, duh,” as my business students might say (not to me, but to one another).

No, apparently not “duh” at all. The notion that someone, somewhere, should be listening is obvious. But real listening is not often found in the wild.

Think of the frustrated medical professional above. She was in front of a patient with a legitimate concern. The only thing she could say in that moment was: "Yes, I know it’s a problem, but the higher-ups aren’t listening to me. Even though I am the one on the front line who talks to several dozen patients every single day. I’ve tried."

If you’re curious, the issue was a new procedure for agreeing to the office’s privacy policy, or HIPAA. Previously, you signed a piece of paper with the relevant words at the top. Under the new procedure, patients were being read the information and asked to sign a blank screen. Understandably, the patient was reluctant; signing a blank screen just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

How many times has this happened to you? I am disappointed but never surprised when I hear: “You’ll have to speak to corporate,” and am handed an 800 number. The system design part of my brain thinks: Isn’t this exactly what you are here for? To receive and relay the lived experiences of customers, patients, and clients?

This is such a classic dynamic that we barely notice it anymore. It's a breakdown in upward communication. The employee standing in front of you should ideally handle your problem or at least pass along your complaint to someone who can.

But they have learned — either through conscious processing of experience or by simply falling in line with the corporate culture — that it’s wasted effort, or worse, to speak up.

Frontline employees in this situation are battling powerful forces that govern how human beings behave in organizations. Managers can help them out with a few very simple behaviors:

  • Say over and over again that you need and want to hear news from the front line. Ask and ask again: “What do [patients, customers, staff] think of [the new policy/procedure]?” So simple, but we avoid doing this because it opens cans of worms. Well, those cans will get opened someday, and by then you may have a bigger problem on your hands.

  • Frame the challenge. “We’re trying a new system. It’s a big change and people may not accept it. But the old way was unwieldy. Keep us posted on how people react.”

  • Actually, truly, listen. Take a moment — extreme, I know — to turn away from your computer screen.

  • Affirmatively welcome the information. Your reaction can be positive, neutral, or negative. Human nature being what it is, neutral and negative are both perceived to be negative; thus, you must go out of your way to be positive.

  • Small things like body language matter greatly. If you sigh and slump your shoulders, you may not hear from that person again. But you can be sure that they will be griping out in the parking lot. (For an extreme example of the harm that side conversations can do, see my recent article, "When Employees Talk to Each Other, but Not Management.")

  • Appreciate how risky it can be to speak up and show that in your words and deeds. Hardly anyone ever got fired for keeping quiet. Employees know this.

So, if your organization is working to build a culture of psychological safety, flip the vinyl over and investigate the B-side. Listen in on your culture of listening. If you claim listening as a value, take an unsparing look at how exactly you are acting on that value in the thousands of small interactions that make up a workday.

And just for fun, read this list of B-sides that arguably eclipsed the fame and importance of their A-sides.

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