More than 20 years ago we had a crisis situation in my organization. In the aftermath, as we were trying to determine what led to the conditions in which such a situation could occur, we began to hear through the grapevine that a few staff members had expressed, “I could have told you that was going to happen.” I was aghast (okay, maybe a bit naïve, but still aghast). How could someone be aware of an action or actions that could result in a crisis and not speak up? All these years later, Dr. Amy Edmondson provided the answer in her book The Fearless Organization. The answer? Psychological safety — or more specifically the lack thereof.
Edmondson broadly defines psychological safety as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing themselves. That means they can sharing concerns without fear of reprisal, blaming or shaming. They trust their colleagues and feel they can ask questions. They speak up about mistakes so there can be a quick correction — even when the potential mistake is being made by someone with “more authority” . . . such as a nurse questioning a Dr.’s order.
As leaders, it is easy to say that we want to cultivate such an environment in our organizations, but performance expectations, deadlines, and a host of ever-changing variables make it much harder to implement in practice. Do individuals feel like their supervisors and team members will “have their back?” Are they confident it is worth the risk to bring up concerns — even seemingly small ones — or will they pay a price for voicing their observations? And even if the senior-most leader works to foster a psychologically safe workplace, how can he or she have confidence it is cascading throughout the organization? Here are a few good places to start.
• Build input into your plans. It can be hard to push back against authority. If you, as a leader, bring forth a plan, it can be perceived that a staff member is criticizing you if they raise a concern (afterall, it is your plan). How different would it feel if, when announcing the plan you indicated, “I am going to need your help in identifying what I may have overlooked,” or “Here is the end goal, but I would like you to help me flesh out the details.” In that way, it is clear that you want input to help improve the plan.
• Invite the Devil’s Advocate. Specifically ask for people to identify what could possibly go wrong with the plan. And then don’t move forward until one or more possible points of failure have been identified. (If you ask the question and then simply move on if no one immediately speaks up, it feels like a rhetorical question.)
• Highlight and reward course corrections. Publicly thank people who identify real or potential problems so the issue can be addressed. Talk about mistakes you have made and learned from, and send the clear message that is it only a failure if no one takes action to fix it. Make the “reward” for speaking up outweigh the risk. That doesn’t mean there isn’t accountability, but it does mean there is a clear expectation everyone has a responsibility for the outcome.
Do these steps guarantee you will have a fearless organization? No, but they’re a pretty good place to start.