We live in a knowledge economy where solving problems and coming up with the next big idea are the keys to success. It’s not enough to be intelligent or hardworking. Employees in organizations must interact, experiment, and adjust to continuously changing company needs. But in many offices and boardrooms, people lack the confidence to do exactly this, silenced by the fear of failure, judgmental colleagues, or unapproachable bosses.
The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, by Amy C. Edmondson, explains what psychological safety is and why it should be a part of every workplace.
Assume you’re in a strategic planning meeting. Your supervisor has discussed some of the issues that need to be addressed, and now she’s looking for comments from the staff. You have an idea, but you’re afraid that others will dismiss it. Instead of taking a chance, you keep your thoughts to yourself.
Most of us have had the experience of wanting to say something but holding back because it would make other people think less of us. This can happen in a meeting, a classroom, or even at the dinner table. We start caring about what our classmates think as children and avoid saying or doing anything that would make us look dumb, weak, or not as cool as everyone else.
The habit of silencing and constraining oneself by the time we’re adults is nearly unconscious, and it inhibits us from speaking out at work when we have ideas, questions, or concerns. Academics Frances J. Milliken, Elizabeth W. Morrison, and Patricia F. Hewlin discovered that 85 percent of research participants were unwilling to contact their employers with work-related complaints in a 2003 study. What is the most typical cause of this? The participants didn’t want their supervisors to think poorly of them.
This happens to even the most self-assured persons. Take, for example, business entrepreneur Nilofer Merchant, who has been called a visionary by CNBC and received the Future Thinker Award from Thinkers50 in 2013. However, Nilofer revealed in a 2011 Harvard Business Review piece that she kept silent about difficulties she spotted at Apple because she didn’t want to be wrong. “I’d rather preserve my job by remaining within the lines than say something and risk seeming silly,” she is reported as saying.
When fear prevents people from speaking up at work, it isn’t just the folks who remain silent that suffer. Companies also miss out on new idea generation opportunities, which is especially dangerous in a world where businesses must innovate to succeed.
Instead of wondering about whether or not your concept will be well received, you may be assured that your boss and coworkers will respond positively. They’ll tell you if they like the concept. They’ll provide you constructive feedback if it doesn’t meet their expectations.
In this ideal setting, you and your coworkers feel psychologically safe, as if they may openly express their thoughts and ideas, make errors, and ask for help without fear of being judged. In the 1990s, while researching medical blunders in hospitals, the author came across the concept of psychological safety. She was initially astonished to discover that the finest medical teams appeared to make more errors than the lower-skilled ones. However, a closer examination indicated that they were not making more errors; rather, they were more open and willing to report them, which led to talks about better working practices.
Refined work processes aren’t the only benefit of psychological safety – it also helps unleash creativity and innovation. A 2012 study by Taiwanese researchers Chi-Cheng Huang and Pin-Chen Jiang demonstrated this. They surveyed 60 research and development teams whose work demands innovative, outside-the-box thinking, and learned that teams with psychological safety performed better, while members of the other teams were too scared of rejection to share their ideas.
Take a look at Google, one of the most innovative companies in the world. The tech giant’s analysis on what variables formed the finest teams was published in a New York Times article in 2016. Researchers discovered that psychological safety was the most crucial characteristic of a good team after researching over 180 Google teams.
Now, innovation is challenging no matter what; when you add in a variety of personalities who must frequently collaborate across cultures and distances, it becomes even more difficult. These challenges, on the other hand, are easier to overcome when there is psychological safety.
Why? It all boils down to a lack of communication. Professor Christina Gibson of the University of Australia and Professor Jennifer Gibbs of Rutgers University researched international innovation teams in 2006 and discovered that psychological safety enabled teams to interact more openly. Teams are far better prepared to face any issues they face when they can not only discuss their opinions openly but also work through them together.
Have you ever sensed that something isn’t quite right at your workplace? Perhaps your boss made a blunder during a presentation. But she has a reputation for being harsh, so instead of bringing it up, you remain silent, scared of upsetting her. Unfortunately, many employers believe that using terror as a leadership style is a good idea. While the resulting mood isn’t pleasant, the repercussions may be substantially worse.
People may go to extreme and sometimes dangerous measures to get the work done when leaders utilize fear to motivate them. Take, for example, Wells Fargo employees. Wells Fargo was the most profitable bank in America in 2015, mainly to its community banking division’s strong sales. Every consumer was signed up for an average of six banking products, which is more than double the industry average.
However, it found out that these spectacular numbers were the consequence of dubious sales practices. Employees were under intense pressure to meet an exceedingly lofty goal of eight products per customer, and those who fell short were publicly humiliated or fired. They opened accounts for customers without authorization or lied about certain products being package deals since they were afraid of speaking up about the unattainable expectations. Wells Fargo paid $185 million in settlements when the practice was exposed, resulting in the creation of two million accounts and credit cards.
Fear in the workplace does not always lead to unethical behavior, but it can impede employees from being honest about a company’s problems and seeking solutions before it’s too late. Nokia had to learn the hard way. It was the world’s top cell phone manufacturer in the 1990s, but by 2012, it had lost that position, as well as over $2 billion and 75% of its market value.
What caused this to happen? In 2015, INSEAD, a graduate business school, issued a study into Nokia’s demise, indicating that the company’s executives failed to speak openly about the threat posed by emerging competitors Apple and Google. Managers and engineers, on the other hand, were hesitant to warn their bosses that the company’s technology couldn’t compete in a rapidly changing market. As a result, Nokia missed out on an opportunity to innovate and became obsolete quickly.
Nokia and Wells Fargo are cautionary tales for any leader who believes that instilling terror in his employees is the greatest way to get the most out of them. So, if fear has taken root in your workplace, the first step in establishing psychological safety is to eradicate it.
How many times have you been taught that you should give it your all? We hear this counsel from our parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and even anonymous internet quotations throughout our lives. We are rarely informed that we will fail. However, accepting failure at work is the first step in creating a courageous workplace. People feel more comfortable taking risks, trying new things, and freely sharing their mistakes when team leaders and managers start talking about failure as something that happens frequently and as a learning opportunity.
While failure may appear to be the polar opposite of what any business wants to do, some of the most successful have made the concept that it’s OK to fail a core element of their business practices. Pixar is responsible for 15 of the top 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time, and co-founder Ed Catmull makes it a point to warn his employees that every movie is horrible in the beginning. This decreases their fear of failing and increases their openness to input. In a very different field, Christa Quarles, CEO of restaurant reservation company OpenTable, pushes her staff to fail frequently and early in order to identify new methods swiftly.
In fact, being comfortable with failure is so vital that Smith College and other American universities are now offering classes to help students see failure as a step toward learning rather than a setback. Failure isn’t the only concept that has to be rethought. Leaders are viewed as authority in many companies, delivering orders and judging how successfully they are followed out. Leaders in a brave workplace, on the other hand, set the direction and goals, then allow employees to offer their own thoughts and ideas.
Check out my related post: How to breed creativity in the organisation?