Why is Psychological Safety important to organisational success?

29th June 2021

“No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear” – Edmund Burke, 1756.

No alt text provided for this image

I stole this quote from the opening statement from Amy Edmondson ‘the fearless organization‘. It sums up the importance of Psychological Safety in organisations that employ knowledge workers, and is at the heart of this blog.

To thrive today organisations need to maintain competitive advantage through innovation.  It’s not enough to just listen, or to empathise, with your customer needs, you also need to look for new customers and create new products, and services too. Successful businesses need to continuously innovate if they are to keep up with their competitors or stay ahead of the game.

For innovation to succeed it is important that psychological safety is in place within your teams and across your organisation. Yet managers rarely have the time to stop and think about the implications this has on their employees or whether there are things they can do to provide a better environment.

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” – Amy C Edmondson

This is a topic we have been looking into at CMC as part of our Business Agility journey. As consultants we are definitely ‘knowledge workers’, employed to apply our knowledge to complex and complicated problems in and around the world of IT and digital services.

No alt text provided for this image

What have I learnt?

Fear holds us back from being innovative, creative or just speaking out. The level of fear varies from one person to another. Some may fear public speaking whilst others seem to take this in their stride. I can pretty much guarantee that fear levels for all would increase, however, if they knew they had a hostile audience that was going to criticise and shout their ideas down. So knowing that you are in an environment, where you feel safe to contribute your views and challenge the status quo without being embarrassed or marginalised is key to achieving psychological safety. One of the changes I have made in my own working life is making it clear in meetings / workshop when I am asking for feedback and inviting comment, and being gracious when it comes. If people don’t feel comfortable contributing because seniors are in the meeting then something is wrong and psychological safety needs to be considered.

A culture of ‘nice’ isn’t a good thing. A culture of ‘niceness’ within an organisation can be a dangerous thing as it sugar coats the real issues. Nice cultures tend to avoid conflict.  This usually means that people avoid saying what they really feel. I’m not suggesting we be horrible, rather not spreading a thin layer of niceness over a thick layer of fear. Many pursue niceness to avoid and hide dissenting views. Usually because to be confrontational would go against the culture of being nice. This is fine until it eventually reaches crisis point. A culture of niceness hides the truth and stifles innovation. To break out of this, leaders need to ensure the company values are always upheld even if that means giving bad news; admitting failures rather than always reporting the success highlights, and being kind and honest rather than just saying what you believe others want to hear.

Tactful challenge is essential. Recently CMC released an article on The Art of the ‘Tactful Challenge’ – CMC (consultcmc.com). This sparked my thinking about how important it is to have psychological safety in place to actually enable tactful challenge. It also made me think about the word ‘tactful’ in the context of challenge. I have, on occasion, seen examples where challenge has not been constructive or tactful, but bordering on passive-aggressive. Communication of this type can undo efforts to put in place an environment of psychological safety. One of the resources I have used to help understand this more is ‘Non-Violent Communication’ or NVC.  NVC is the language of connection: It’s a learnable, practical way to bring empathy, honesty, strength and compassion into our personal and professional relationships. Being able to bring your best self to work, acting with kindness, honesty and integrity has to be at the heart of psychological safety.

I feel fortunate that we have an open culture at CMC and that this is something our leadership team are comfortable talking about. There is always room for improvement, however, and so we are looking into ways to improve psychological safety within CMC. How are you tackling this in your organisations?

By Lyn Girvan, Head of Business Analysis at CMC Partnership Consultancy Ltd