When it comes to breaking the ice, perhaps no one has done it like Tom Gerrity, former CEO of software company Index. In one instance, Tom gathered his staff of 100 and purposely asked a consultant to give him real-time negative feedback. What could have just been an awkward moment became a turning point as Tom's receptiveness to criticism made his staff more comfortable and less worried about speaking up. Managers also became more open to receiving tough comments themselves.
It wasn't clearly defined back then but what Tom was aiming for was 'psychological safety'. Amy Edmondson coined the term in 1999 when she was doing her PhD, studying the link between error making and teamwork in hospitals. She observed that teams who felt safe reporting errors, had better teamwork and consequently, better results.
Yet fast forward 20 years and psychological safety is still a culture that organisations have to fully embrace and practice. A McKinsey Global Survey revealed that even when team collaboration became more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, only a handful of business leaders demonstrated behaviours that fostered psychological safety.
The idea of encouraging people to speak up is not as straightforward as it seems. While many employees are encouraged to use their voice and share candid feedback, many still choose to keep quiet because they fear job loss, humiliation, punishment, or sadly believe it won't make any difference at all.
However, creating a psychologically safe environment for employees has never been more important given the changes that have taken place in the past three years, such as the beginning of hybrid work. Making sure we hear people and engage their opinions and ideas is not simply a 'must' for leaders anymore – they should make it their mission.
If providing continual feedback produces better results as Edmondson's research suggests, what if your company's next million-dollar idea came from candid internal feedback? Wouldn't you want to listen?
A win for creativity and innovation
We may not realise it but most of our innovative and creative ideas come to us when we can freely express them.
According to research, psychological safety is a "precursor to adaptive, innovative performance." It means that when provided with a safe environment and culture to speak up, employees are more likely to step up and put themselves or their ideas forward instead of staying silent. A recent Catalyst report indicated that 18 per cent of employee innovation was attributed to positive experiences of inclusion. Most of our innovative and creative ideas come to us when we can freely express them.
Although it does not only give subordinates or employees an advantage, it can make managers more creative too. In a field experiment conducted at a Korean health food company, researchers found that when leaders were criticised by their employees, they were more likely to focus on getting better at their tasks. In fact, their creativity rose by nine per cent after receiving negative feedback, according to reviews from their supervisors.
Uncomfortable but safe
Edmondson noted that a psychologically safe environment is not all roses and sunshine. "Too many people think that it's about feeling comfortable all the time and that you can't say anything that makes someone else uncomfortable, or you're violating psychological safety," she said. But it's not.
The idea is about having a safe space for people from all levels and backgrounds to provide constructive feedback for a much bigger purpose of servicing clients and communities better. Initially the process can be brutal, but its long-term impacts for the people and the business can be invaluable. "Candour is hard but non-candour is worse," she said.
Warner Music, for example, rolled out a new programme to 1500 of its people managers, where members give each other candid feedback about their hits and flops to create better music in the future.
Toyota had its 'Andon cord,' which any employee could pull to halt the production if they spotted any potential problem and threat to its vehicle quality. It wasn't long before Amazon and Netflix followed suit and adopted the same principle to maintain high customer satisfaction.
In a more systematic way, the concept of intrapreneurship, which allows employees to act like an entrepreneur within an organisation, plays into this culture of psychological safety by providing a safe space to experiment, and test ideas without fear of personal repercussion. It abides by the principle that mistakes and failures are necessary parts of a journey to success – fail fast, get up quickly and try again.
Drawing the line
While creating a speak-up culture is critical, psychological safety is not a licence to say and demand anything we want, nor can it be used to shield people from accountability. It should encourage people to own up to their ideas and actions, and empower them to spark discussions and explore possible solutions.
As Jo Daly from Warner Music pointed out, "It's about understanding that we have a responsibility to listen to one another, to identify truths and speak them well, but speak them kindly."
This is the challenge that leaders who commit to foster such a culture must face and learn: to allow and encourage people to speak up, but also to know when to temper ideas and feedback if they become counterproductive.
Creating psychologically safe environments is not as simple as asking people for their feedback. Even when actively asking for people's inputs, the challenge leaders must face is how to convince employees that speaking up will not backfire on them.
It could increasingly become an issue in times of economic uncertainty when people are more likely to put their heads down and get their work done, rather than raising concerns about the challenges ahead.
So, more than merely asking for feedback, leaders must create a trusting work environment by prioritising psychosocial safety, facilitating holistic growth, and the adoption of a growth mindset to give people the confidence to speak up because they are in a safe space.
What are the magic ingredients?
Edmondson had pointed out, a psychologically safe environment is "a climate that we co-create, sometimes in mysterious ways." There isn't an absolute formula, but that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. Employees must be provided with the right avenues or platforms to voice their thoughts and feedback. They should also be equipped with skills in tactical communication and conflict resolution to avoid creating issues and tension.
Similar to other relationships, this kind of culture doesn't happen overnight – it will take time and commitment from leaders and employees (and a little bit of conscious effort in the beginning). There must be a mutual understanding of what psychological safety is and its role embedded in the company's culture, values, and ethics.
Most importantly, leaders play a crucial role in making this happen, as Gerrity did. After all, they have the strongest influence in shaping and setting the tone and culture of the team. Once that has been set, everyone will follow suit. Can they muster the courage to listen intently to the voices of their people – both the pleasant and not so pleasant?
To create a truly psychologically safe workplace, people must see it and experience it, to believe it. Ultimately, it doesn't stop when employees speak up. Leaders and organisations must listen, show an appropriate response and take action – even if it means that an employee's idea may not be utilised. You listened, you explored, and you acknowledged them and their efforts. That's what counts. Embracing these opportunities allows for growth and innovation within the workplace.
Success isn't only defined by wins and achievements – it is, in most times, a product of numerous failures and thousands of iterations and improvements as well. So, why should we shy away from awkward conversations and honest feedback? The next million-dollar idea could be found in them!