Psychological safety is not a term that is often heard in the work place, and on first hearing most of us might think we don’t know what it means. In fact, all managers will be familiar with the concept: a shared belief that it is safe to take risks within the team, and that team members feel safe and accepted in being able to be honest.
In an ideal world, we would all be able to provide honest feedback about the status of projects, poor behaviours and so on in our workplaces without any fear of reprisal. In reality all of us will, at least, have heard of someone who has been made to feel so insecure that they’ve left the company or, worse, been forced to leave. What this does is make other employees feel ‘psychologically unsafe’. It makes them think twice about reporting any wrongdoing (in its widest sense) in the future.
That doesn’t sound like a healthy situation, and studies have found that the best-performing teams are those that are least afraid of reporting (and learning) from mistakes. This has the added bonus of management finding out if there are project delays or other mistakes early on rather than as part of a back-end quality control process.
Or worse, when it’s far too late, leading to some of the issues we have seen reported in the press of late. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is well known that Toyota’s employees are able to stop the whole production line if they find something going wrong. Costly, yes, but not as costly as a whole line of mistakes and possible consequential reputational damage.
The problem is that in most organisations today the culture is far from being psychologically safe. This can lead to a variety of problems, even as far as stifling creativity, which is what most organisations strive for, and headline-hitting bad news stories.
Film-makers Pixar have a totally different culture where they openly acknowledge that failure is a central part of the success of their films – that it is part of the journey they have to go through. The rationale is that it is better to find out what is wrong early than have the film flop at the box office.
What does all this mean for employers in general terms? If people feel safe in their working environment, they will be happier and more productive. If they feel able to admit their mistakes or where things have gone wrong, they will be open about doing so.
They learn from their mistakes and find a way to put things right for the future. If people do not feel this way, it results in higher turnover rates, higher absenteeism and lower productivity as well as a myriad of other negatives and a lack of creativity.
None of this is what employers want for their workplaces – nor can they afford it.
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