Psychological Safety and the Free Exchange of Ideas
Make it discussable. Then, discuss it.
Posted September 21, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Last month, the Marshall School of Business at USC replaced a professor who used a Chinese word in class that sounds similar to a hideous racial slur in English. In a course on international business communications, Professor Greg Patton was discussing filler words across cultures – like “um” and “uh” – and used the Chinese word “na-ge” as an example.
A group of students wrote to complain, and the university’s public response was definitive and contrite: public statements came out and another professor took over teaching the course. Maybe so definitive and contrite as to verge on throwing a patronizing bone to students. Some commentators, including USC students, have called it performative anti-racism and said they’d much rather have the administration doing real things to combat real racism, of which there is no shortage of examples.
The story made national news, even appearing on Trevor Noah’s Daily Show. And seemingly everyone is upset. Asian and Asian American students are upset. Black students are upset. Alumni are upset. Professor Patton did write a solid and detailed apology to his students – who have been a little forgotten in all the noise – but has not joined the fray, saying he does not wish to become a story on Fox News. A cloud now hangs over his reputation and future at USC. (More details here.)
Psychological safety: Not the same as a “safe space”
In its public apology, the university mentioned “hurt and harm” to the students’ psychological safety. As one of the first scholars to document the phenomenon of psychological safety, I am here to report that this is a very common misapplication of the concept. Psychological safety is not the same as a safe space. It is not the same as a trigger-free space. It is not a space where you will always feel comfortable and not have your views challenged. It is almost the opposite. It’s a brave space, really—an environment in which people do not feel they have to hold back with a concern or question for fear of recrimination or humiliation. And thus, it’s often an environment of vigorous and challenging give-and-take. The deep irony here is that the felt pressure to enforce a PC culture appears to have diminished, not enhanced, psychological safety.
The goal is less fear, not more
As others have noted, all of us are at constant risk of saying something that is misheard or misinterpreted. Words and syllables that blend together, or that come from different languages and are uttered in varied voices and accents, can be heard in ways that were not intended by the speaker. If we are held accountable for what others hear, rather than what we meant to convey, it would be wise never to speak at all. Again, the very opposite of the spirit of psychological safety.
The research has shown that psychologically safe work environments are those with higher learning and performance. When people lack psychological safety – and feel tied up in knots about whether others will think less of them – they hold back too much of what they are seeing and thinking, and their teams suffer.
When I hear students’ psychological safety called out as a reason to restrict the discussion of challenging and difficult topics at school (or work), I know that I have failed to do my job – as a researcher and an educator who is passionate about creating environments where learning happens.
What could have happened instead: Learning
This all could have gone so much better. There are indeed some interesting questions here about which reasonable people can disagree. But these issues did not actually get discussed in the university classroom – the very place where learning is meant to happen. Instead, they were discussed in closed meeting rooms, as part of a put-out-the-fire-fast public relations effort, with hardly anyone learning anything.
Imagine the rich classroom (alas, now Zoom) discussion about communication differences and cultural nuances that could have taken the place of all this heat and noise. Truly a missed opportunity.
Psychological safety is more than a currently-fashionable buzz-phrase. Its import and goal are to make uncomfortable things discussable, all of them, fearlessly – with a shared appreciation of our humanity, signaled by displays of kindness and respect. Otherwise, we remain fearfully stalled.
Breaking: As I was writing this today, this excellent and very comprehensive article appeared in the Atlantic.