There are few things more important for a leader than fostering a culture where people feel safe to contribute their ideas. In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel free to take risks without fear of any negative consequences for speaking up. I’ve seen firsthand the lengths involved in identifying, preparing and promoting talent when I ran a management assessment center. To spend plenty of resources for that purpose and then not use the talent is a terrible waste.
Amy C. Edmondson has written the latest sine qua non about psychological safety in the workplace. If you didn’t know, Google’s study on what makes the best teams was influenced by Edmondson’s early research. Google ranked psychological safety as the first and far and away the most important of factors vital for team success. But getting it right can get messy.
If you as a leader insist on high performance standards but neglect psychological safety, employees will want to speak up about quality or safety concerns, but they’ll feel anxious because they know that their observations and general input to make something better will be ignored or ridiculed. Their contributions, most of the time, aren’t welcomed, so they don’t offer input, and so on it goes. I’ve seen examples of this, and as an executive coach, I’ve heard of many more from my clients who share their stories. There have been situations where a senior leader demanded ambitious goals thinking it would take ambitious efforts, and then modeled bad behaviors such as a raised voice, throwing things and humiliating others with their words. The leader wanted to stretch the elastic band of possibility in an uncertain market, but their actions kept people silent, dampened people’s drive, encouraged cautiousness and promoted fear.
On the other hand, lowering performance standards and relaxing consequences isn’t the way to go about it either. When you do this, all you get is a “nice” culture at the expense of one that promotes challenge and innovates. Letting go of holding people accountable reduces people’s motivation to take risks and set ambitious goals. It reduces engagement.
If, however, there’s a high bar for performance and attention to promoting sensitivity when people take interpersonal risks, the environment will be productive, and people will feel open and ready to disagree. The Goldilocks principle is at play when this combination is exactly right. In a psychologically safe workplace, there’s challenging work to do in ways that are mutually respectful so that when people fail and recover, they do so without reprisal.
But let’s be careful not to oversell psychological safety. It doesn’t have the muscle to go all the way to motivate people to collaborate with one another, and that’s key because collaboration is how work gets done. Psychological safety is a hygiene factor, not an engine. When it’s absent, boy do we notice.
The Dynamism Of Trust And Collaboration
We also need to notice how psychological safety interacts with collaboration. What’s important for leaders to recognize is that trust is foundational. We can’t cultivate purpose without it.
We know that having a view beyond ourselves, to the group, the team, the enterprise and the higher mission opens our appreciation of what we are working towards and gives us the energy to work interdependently.
Collaboration without trust isn’t genuine or effective. The stepladder to effective collaboration begins with trust, so it’s disappointing that executives in a large study rated building trust very low in relation to the other factors of instilling purpose and generating energy. This news is hard to swallow and suggests that we still will be facing a trust deficit for some time.
I feel good about the leaders I know who read about management concepts with the intention of raising their leadership game. However, I’ve noticed as we hunger to learn, we can inadvertently overemphasize a useful concept like psychological safety, believing it can deliver more than it can. We can also slip up by overlooking the importance of trust in creating effective collaboration. Understanding and applying both go a long way towards creating a flourishing culture at work.
This article was published first on Forbes.com Thank you to Rodion Kutsaev for the photo.