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The Behaviorist: Safety is key to workplace risks

As the story goes in ancient Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the gift of seeing the future but frustrated with the curse that no one would ever believe her. Today, a Cassandra culture in the workplace is one that lacks psychological safety. 

Imagine being a nurse and the doctor you are working with has prescribed what you think is perhaps too high of a dose to a patient. However, last month when you noticed something potentially amiss and you brought it up to the doctor, he leveled you, telling you to stay in your lane and not question his orders.

The Harvard researcher, Dr. Amy Edmondson, did not set out to discover the phenomenon of psychological safety. In fact, in her book, “Fearless Organizations,” she writes that her initial research was to hypothesize, “the most effective teams would make the fewest errors.” 

When she looked at the data, she found something altogether different. It appeared that the more effective teams were the ones who “apparently make more, not fewer, mistakes than the less-strong teams.” 

And not just a little bit. It was a statistically significant correlation. 

At first, she was worried about the findings. Then she had a revelation: “What if the better teams had a climate of openness that made it easier to report and discuss errors? The good teams don’t make more mistakes, they report more.” When she examined the data further, she found it was true.

A recipe for mistakes

Edmondson defines psychological safety as the feeling that at work, you can take interpersonal risks, you can make a mistake, speak up, and there is enough respect and trust among your co-workers that you can be honest and open. 

Reimagine the nurse/doctor scenario in a psychologically safe environment. The nurse warns the doctor and the doctor appreciates the intervention. Or if the nurse wasn’t correct, the doctor was still open to feedback and treated the exchange as a teaching moment. 

As Edmondson notes in her book, fear reduces our ability to learn. But in a psychologically safe environment, learning thrives. 

Lack of psychological safety can be a disaster. Edmondson cites the well-known cases of Volkswagen and Wells Fargo. “[It] was not the result of one bad apple but a system that demanded hitting targets so ambitious they could only be met by deceit … managers sent a clear message: produce – or else.” 

You might not be experiencing those kinds of extreme cases, but you might relate to a) not wanting to speak up because you don’t want to look foolish, b) assuming that the person in charge knows better, c) finding it easier to be quiet and d) thinking, “Nobody will listen to me anyway.” 

But the problem with all of these scenarios, Edmondson said, is that the team misses out on diverse perspectives, which leads to mediocrity and untapped collective genius. It’s “the innovation that didn’t happen” and it’s almost always invisible.

In a psychologically safe workplace, everyone is reminded that their perspective is necessary for success. Diversity of perspectives makes us smarter, more innovative and more creative. 

Okay, but how? Edmondson lays it out:

  1. Set the stage: A COO of a children’s hospital had a goal of “100 percent patient safety for the hospitalized children under her care.” In order to set the stage for psychological safety, she helped create a “shift in perspective [that] would prove essential to helping people feel safe speaking up about problems, mistakes and risks they saw.”
  2. Invite participation: Create structures that make participation easier. Being curious and inviting feedback helps people in the organization be open to give their input. Instead of asking, “Did you see lots of mistakes or harm?” the COO would ask staff, “Was everything as safe as you would like it to have been this week for your patients?” 
  3. Respond productively. If I invite you to participate and then belittle your idea, I’ve squandered the psychological safety that might have been achieved. Be open and appreciative of the feedback.

As Edmondson said, “When a leader reminds people that the context in which we work is full of uncertainty – that is, it is complex and profoundly interdependent – they’re creating a logical case for the fact that voice is needed.  No one knows all the answers, and everyone could have a crucial piece of the puzzle.” 

We can’t afford to work in psychologically unsafe workplaces. With perpetual change and innovation, having psychological safety on our teams will make it more exciting to go to work, but it’s also better for the world.  

Sarah Colantonio works at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster County. Her focus is on communication and mindfulness in the workplace. She can be reached at [email protected].

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