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Do You Dare Speak Up in Your Company?

It takes psychological safety for people show up at their best.

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Many of us have fear about speaking up at work
Source: Filadendron/Getty Images

There’s a growing body of research suggesting that psychological safety is a critical factor in the performance of organizations. Prof. Amy Edmundson in her book The Fearless Organization describes psychological safety as “a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.” She also clarifies that psychological safety is not about being nice. Rather it is about people feeling safe enough to take interpersonal risks and to speak up candidly.

And psychological safety research is becoming quite clear. Teams and organizations with a higher degree of such safety perform better over time. The two-year research study conducted by Google on team effectiveness captures the essence of this growing body of knowledge well. Teams and organizations with a high degree of psychological safety learn and perform more effectively because people share concerns openly, speak truth to power, and ensure everyone contributes fully.

Put simply, when this sense of safety or boldness to take interpersonal risks exists, more minds can come together fully to solve problems and create effective solutions.

Changing the culture of an organization to create psychological safety can be very difficult, however. It is never as easy as asking people to speak up – even if that is part of the answer. Organizational culture is a complex phenomenon that often defies even the strongest intentions of people in leadership positions.

Leaders can create psychological safety in their organization at three levels (from least difficult to most difficult).

Environmental Level. The main actions leaders can take at this level include communications efforts to convey the why, what, and how for the organization; role-modeling desired behaviors; celebrating or reinforcing desired behaviors; and creating initiatives in the organization that build skills for people to handle their daily challenges. Leaders can lower the overall level of fear in an organization, in particular, by creating a meaningful narrative in which speaking up is a necessary and celebrated value, intentionally and consistently role-modeling candor and openness themselves, and ensuring people in the organization who are speaking up or being transparent about their mistakes are recognized and celebrated.

Relationship Level. While it is important to have broader environmental conditions established for psychological safety, it is also critical that smaller working groups build interpersonal trust and learn how to speak up with each other in a constructive way. In particular, the skills to have effective difficult conversations are especially important.

By definition, a difficult conversation is one that will likely spark fear (most people experience a degree of fear when faced with difficulty). In their book Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen describe how people often think they are having a conversation about the “facts” of what happened in a given situation, but unskillfully miss or stumble on the emotional or identity trigger components of a conversation.

Oftentimes in organizations, these difficult conversations are either not had at all, or they are had but in a poor or ineffective way. The way through this isn’t to simply encourage people to speak up. The answer is to help people build the skills to speak up in ways that are candid yet also enhance trust. This is not a common skill taught in school.

Individual Level. Organizations will only shift their culture when a critical mass of individuals shift their own thinking and doing. This is where culture change becomes difficult, but also essential and powerful.

To create enduring psychological safety in an organization, individuals need to build a new relationship with their fears, worries, doubts, and insecurities. Fear-based defensive patterns are part of the human condition – and each of our life experiences and predispositions impacts the development of these patterns. We all have our unique comfort zones that determine how and when we experience fear and how we respond to those fears.

Consider one example of a leader who achieved promotions throughout his career by having the “right” answers to tough problems. This pattern, while allowing him to be promoted for most of his career also contributed to an environment in his organization of low psychological safety. People in the organization were afraid to speak up because they were typically “shot down” and “corrected” by the leader. He had the answers.

For this leader, creating psychological safety was much more difficult than simply learning how to mouth the words: “What do you think?” He had to first become aware of his deep-seated need to be right and fear of rejection if he were to be “wrong”. Once he shifted his core belief about his own value and worth and acknowledged his needs and fears, he could then consistently and authentically demonstrate curiosity about others’ input. A similar learning journey is required for individuals across an organization – whether they need to listen better, speak up more effectively, or both.

Creating psychological safety in organizations is essential, but difficult. The organizations that successfully create psychological safety are the ones that won’t over-simplify the issue but embrace its full complexity. This starts by creating environmental conditions to make it easier for people to take interpersonal risks at work. But this also requires a deep focus on skills of difficult conversations and trust-building as well as helping individuals face their own fears with curiosity and openness. Realizing our individual and collective potential at work depends on it.