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How Psychological Safety Can Benefit Organizations

"Tone at the top" can encourage innovation or discourage it through fear.

I wrote several months ago about the value of "psychological safety" (a concept emanating from a 2015 study) from an individual management perspective. My basic message: Creating a managerial environment where people feel free to speak their minds and take chances is an underrated attribute that has a very positive effect on employees and their feelings about work.

 StockSnapio No Attribution Listed
An informal, safe flow of ideas helps a company.
Source: StockSnapio No Attribution Listed

I was interested to unexpectedly come across, as I was recently reading Adam Grant's new book Think Again, a detailed discussion of the same (frequently neglected) concept. Whereas I'd been largely interested in psychological safety as it applied to individual managers and their teams, Grant focused more on the notion as it applied to organizations and their cultures. He provided good concise descriptions examining its strong organizational benefits.

Grant described how many leaders don't grasp the importance of psychological safety (yep, I heartily concur). "Although leaders might understand its significance, they often misunderstand exactly what it is," he wrote. It's not just being "nice and agreeable" but fully understanding the real substantive value of creating an environment where "people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal." He went on the describe how in overly performance-oriented cultures "the emphasis on results often undermines psychological safety."

Undermining innovation

Yes indeed. I've seen this phenomenon often. It may or may not even be an entire company that's affected, let's say, but just a particular department or division where management has created a fear-driven atmosphere in which risk-taking is unthinkable and employees are far more concerned with surviving and holding on to their jobs than in doing what's best for the organization. Never underestimate the power of a single manager, it could be a CEO or even just the head of a sizable department, to cause damage. Tone at the top matters; the dampening chill can be palpable.

Grant provided a nice summary clearly delineating the grassroots dysfunctions that are part of a psychologically unsafe environment. A chart containing two columns showed simply what psychological safety can mean "when you have it" and "when you don't." The organizational impacts included:

See mistakes as opportunities to learn / See mistakes as threats to your career

Willing to take risks and fail / Unwilling to rock the boat

Speaking your mind in meetings / Keeping your ideas to yourself

Sticking your neck out / Having your head chopped off.

Leaving managers, not companies

Needless to say, the problems that occur, the lack of creativity and innovation that naturally follow when employees work in a continual state of anxiety, have real consequences. Having worked in both safe and unsafe environments during the course of a long career, I firmly believe the creation of psychological safety is one of management's most critical roles, despite the fact it's ignored in many management textbooks. As the old business saying goes, "people leave managers, not companies."

Lack of psychological safety is one key reason good people leave.