A Fly on the Wall in a Fearless Organization

What does psychological safety sound like?

Posted Jun 10, 2019

The trickiest part of organizational change is translating the big idea into the little interactions that happen hundreds or even thousands of times a day. What are team members actually saying to one another in situations both small and large, both ordinary and earth-shattering? 

If you follow the current thinking on leadership and management, you have seen the concept of psychological safety cropping up with greater and greater frequency. Psychological safety describes an atmosphere where team members feel they can speak up with concerns, bad news, or ideas without fear of being shut down, blamed, or humiliated. 

I call these cultures fearless organizations. In a fearless organization, people are all in. They don’t let concerns about what others might think cripple them. I’ve spent 20-plus years studying how psychologically safe workplaces unleash creativity, innovation, and learning, and have documented it all in my latest book, The Fearless Organization

Where it gets complicated is bringing this into the everyday life of the team. First, my standard caveat: Psychological safety is often confused with a “safe space,” when it’s actually nearly the opposite. 

A psychologically safe culture is not free of conflict, consequences, or accountability. These things exist but are managed positively and constructively. It does not mean employees are “wrapped in cotton wool,” as my friend and London Business School professor Dan Cable has said. Think of psychological safety as an atmosphere of healthy give-and-take, rather than an atmosphere of tiptoeing around.

So, in a psychologically safe environment, what’s actually being said in the room? I've divided the list below into “team leader” and “team member,” mainly for emphasis. But in actuality, anyone anywhere in the hierarchy can permit, build, or claim psychological safety. (See my earlier post, "How to Lead When You're Not the Boss.") 

Team leader

  • This is totally new territory for us, so I’m going to need everyone’s input.
  • There are many unknowns/things are changing fast/this is complex stuff. So we will make mistakes.
  • Okay, that’s one side. Let’s hear some dissent/who’s got something to add/let’s have some give-and-take.
  • Lucy, you look concerned. Gilles, you haven’t said much. Adrian, what are you hearing in the warehouse/on the phones/on the road? 
  • What assumptions are we making? What else could this be/could we investigate/have we left out?
  • What are you up against? What help do you need? What’s in your way? 
  • Did everything go as smoothly as you would have liked? What were the friction points? Are there systems we should retool? 
  • If you’ve got something to add, just… (mention a few channels of communication, including ones suitable for difficult conversations).
  • Thank you for that clear line of sight. (This was the famous reaction of Ford's Alan Mullaly to some colossally bad news.)
  • I really appreciate your bringing this to me. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.  

Team member:

  • We’ve got some new information we’d like to share. 
  • Something’s been troubling me. Do you have ten minutes to talk about it? 
  • Some of this is not good news. Is this an okay time to dig in?
  • I mentioned the problem to the team and we’ve got some ideas.
  • I’ve hit a roadblock/I’ve got to go back to square one/I’ve made a mistake. 
  • We tried an experiment, and it didn’t go as expected.
  • The front desk says patients aren't comfortable with this new procedure.
  • There’s been an uptick in X, and we can’t explain it just yet. 
  • I’m not sure who to approach about this kind of thing/the level of detail you like to hear/what’s the best procedure for bringing up a concern. 
  • Let me recheck that for you. It doesn’t sound right. It’ll only take a minute. 
  • We need another pair of eyes on this. Best to spend a minute/hour/day/week on that now.
  • I don’t feel right about this. Can we do a hard stop right here? 

As you can see, these are perfectly normal, everyday phrases. And that is exactly my point. None of this is technical knowledge or deep expertise; it’s more like cultivating a habit of mind and re-orienting one’s thinking. All of it is quite simple—and yet, not easy. 

A few themes emerge from these snippets. Team leaders and members, wherever they are in the hierarchy, must continuously do three things:

  1. Frame the challenge. This creates room for questions and concerns, but also for creativity. What you’re really doing is giving permission to experiment, possibly mess up in myriad small ways, and thus to learn. After all, we live in a VUCA world (a military term for variable, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). There’s always a challenge to frame.
  2. Invite participation. Make it 100 percent clear that all voices are welcome. Be continuously on the lookout for the unspoken concern or idea. It remains a stubborn fact that we don’t know what we don’t know. I’ve seen companies do creative things like developing their own insider-speak, almost a set of cues for speaking up. These can be anything—a catchphrase, a line from a movie. And depending on the context, they can be odd or goofy or profound. 
  3. Respond appropriately. Make speaking up a positive experience, even when you don’t like what you've heard. This is incredibly hard sometimes, but absolutely necessary. When you get bad news, you might be angry or disappointed. You may be worried about the project or how the news reflects on you. But in the moment, you must put all that to the side. Thank the messenger enthusiastically, sincerely, and publicly, if appropriate. Then move forward constructively.  

These three things must be done in as many ways—and at as many junctures—as it takes. 

Here's a way to think about creating psychological safety. It comes from a different context, but it works. There's a very gifted designer of educational products, David Dockterman, who has taught a popular course at the Harvard School of Education. One of his maxims: Think of the classroom where kids are doing your activity. Think of what you want them to be saying to each other. Work backward from there. 

It’s in that spirit that I offer up the list above. It only scratches the surface, and context is everything. But I do I hope these snippets might help you work backward to a culture of speaking up and forward to a fearless organization. 

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