THE FEARLESS ORGANIZATION (Part 1) – Importance of Psychological Safety

Haven’t we all been in a situation where we were scared of being perceived as stupid and have therefore held back our opinions and ideas – especially at school or work? This seems to be a painfully common as well as natural phenomenon, simply because whatever you say is constantly under scrutiny by everyone else. Studies show that people frequently hold back even when they think what they have to say could be extremely important for the organization. What more, people often regret being silent and this results in unreported problems, missed opportunities and tragedies that could have been easily avoided.

But imagine being in a setting where all your ideas are welcome, you feel safe to take risks and ask questions sans judgement. An environment wherein the employees are allowed to let their guard down so that speaking is enabled and even expected– is called psychological safety.Google conducted a large-scale research called Project Aristotle to find out what differentiated the most efficient and effective teams from the lesser ones. They found that psychological safety was the single-most key! In such workplaces, the employees are less likely to quit, more likely to make use of diverse viewpoints and ultimately achieve more success.

Image Source: Medium.com

They always say – keep your personal and professional life separate. But think about it, work today is more than just labor so do you really want to leave a part of your personality at home and come to work? Wouldn’t you rather be fully present at work and feel safe enough to be able to be yourself and talk your mind without any fear? We must be able to talk about everything from ‘I screwed up!’ to ‘It sounds crazy but, can we have a cupcake day?’.  In the best of teams, members talk, listen, empathize and most importantly, have fun. 
So why exactly does one not speak up then? People feel vulnerable in today’s competitive work-environments wherein it is better to be safe than sorry. Moreover, even the most considerate managers feel the need to look intimidating. There is a fear of damaging relationships and being perceived negatively.  Studies show that this not only applies to dissenting opinions but also improvement ideas – so strong is the gravitational pull of silence. One might say that confidence is a significant factor in determining why some people speak up more than others. While this cannot be denied, studies have shown that psychological safety helps people speak up despite lack of confidence!

Image Source: Dilbert Comics

Is psychological safety worth it? Of course! Psychological safety in teams not only leads to better employee engagement but also better trust in top management.  Logically, when you finally feel free in your work environment your mental well-being and satisfaction get enhanced along with wanting to stay with the company for longer. Managers tend to think that encouraging psychological safety may mean lowering the standards of performance, given how it fosters people to report their mistakes and even take help from each other. However, since it replaces fear and silence with openness – it actually drives you towards more ambitious goals.  The benefit of psychological safety is thus truly greater than it seems. But obviously, it takes time and deliberate effort to cultivate psychological safety in teams and eventually organizations. So how does one do it? Stay tuned and find out in the next article! 

Nivya Raghunandan 
thoughts@kaleidoscope.org.in