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psychological safety

Consulting Case Study - how we helped this creative organisation turn fear of speaking out into a stream of award winning ideas

Innovation comes with an opinion - but does your culture welcome that, or stifle it?

The term ‘psychological safety’ has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years. Research has concluded that a lot of organisations don’t have it and what’s more, there’s a positive correlation between it and performance and employee engagement. Understandably with all these benefits, many organisations are keen to work on their psychological safety.

But what is it really and how does an organisation go about this? This case study is based on the consultancy work we did with a creative organisation.

What is psychological safety?

At a basic level, a lack of psychological safety is about the fear of speaking up. Human beings who do not feel psychologically safe discount the future. They make a decision to protect themselves now - to the detriment of future consequences for self and others. The term originally came about from the medical world, where nurses and other medical team members would spot a potential life threatening problem but didn’t speak up about it.

People don’t speak up because they:

  • Are afraid of being seen in a bad light
  • Feel that there’s no point (futility)
  • Assume others must have already thought about it

Psychological safety is about' interpersonal risk’, it’s risking being wrong, unpopular, seen in a bad light or as a ‘pain’. The recent positive thinking organisational culture and ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’ types of leadership styles has caused psychological safety to be quashed. This leaves those airing concerns being seen as groups of naysayers and people with negative mindsets.

The problem

The organisation we worked with were a group of highly energetic, creative and determined people. When surveyed, they felt that to speak up was not part of the culture, and could leave them being seen as not a team player. We were asked to help because the output of their work was diluting in quality. They were no longer seen as leading edge and innovative, but veering more and more towards average and mediocre.

The CEO wasn’t concerned about profits as such, but was concerned about what was going on and where it could lead. What might happen in terms of brand damage and reputation if not corrected? He was hiring all the brilliant people, but they weren’t creating brilliant things - what was going on?

What we discovered

The senior leaders were all interviewed and staff completed an anonymous survey. We found that the pressure to be positive, supportive and nice was resulting in a lack of psychological safety and a massive dose of groupthink that was stifling creativity.

Contrary to what you might think about organisations with a lack of psychological safety, they did not have a bullying problem, people felt very supported by their managers. However, they did not feel that it was OK to speak up if they thought something was wrong or if they had doubts about the design of a project.

Some comments uncovered situations of individuals being given feedback for being negative because they couldn’t think of a solution to the problem they’d raised, leaders overpraising ‘can do’ attitudes, imposter syndrome and lack of confidence in new staff who felt awe inspired by the senior team and hence followed whatever direction they suggested. There were also concerns that some people were being allowed to get away with bad behaviour because they were ‘too important’ to the organisation.

Get the complexity of this? This problem stemmed from well intentioned people, trying to do positive and dynamic work but, by not digging into problems and encouraging the raising of concerns, they inadvertently quashed their leading edge.

The solution

In a brainstorm with the leadership team several actions were decided on to turn this around:

  • They agreed to not use over dramatic, emotion packed language around projects and to create stages in the process of projects where critique and concerns were actively encouraged.
  • They encouraged blameless reporting. Some leaders felt this should be anonymous to help create safety but overall it was decided it was up to the leaders to ensure they followed up positively with reporting and that it was important to be able to identify someone so that they could discuss it with them. Whilst this approach took longer to establish trust, over time it was much more productive and useful than an anonymous reporting approach for them.
  • The leadership made a pact to practice situational humility, and admit they don’t know everything. As the CEO said ”no one wants to take a risk in speaking up if their leader appears to think they know everything”.
  • More effort was made to express appreciation for listening, for time, for sharing, for speaking up to create a new more open culture.
  • When someone is acting against the values of the organisation, they decided to take tougher sanctions towards bad behaviour when it happened. This lets people know the organisation is serious about its culture and values

The results

It took around six months before the leadership team started to see a measurable change in people coming forward. At first, they reported that no-one would turn up for ‘critique and concern’ meetings. In the early stages, they felt like giving up but they kept holding them and kept encouraging people. Eventually, meetings were packed out with people wanting to speak, understand and learn.

Two years on and their internal employee surveys, which measure psychological safety through a number of questions (which you can find in Amy’s book detailed below), showed a marked increase in the level of psychological safety in the organisation. In addition the team starting winning awards for their design work again, which gave everyone a real boost and confirmation that all the hard work was worth it.

With thanks to the CEO of the organisation in this case study, who agreed to let us print this anonymously.

Further information and help

For more reading on psychological safety read The Fearless Organisation by Amy C Edmondson.

Our recent article looks at the reasons why brilliance is very often lost organisational culture and team dynamics and offers some remedies. Read ‘Why aren’t my brilliant people being brilliant?’

If you are a leader wanting to get the best response from your brilliant people, our Leadership Development programmes can help. Alternatively, if you’d welcome an outside perspective on your own organisation, we’ll help you get beneath the surface with the clarity of an external view.

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If you’d like our support in making these ideas work for you and your business, please get in touch.

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