How Managers Can Create Psychological Safety

One common concern managers have is when they ask their people to share their ideas and people do not speak. This situation may have its variants and typically managers ask questions like, “What do you think? or “What do you think about . . . ?” Or, “Do you have any questions?” A little more prodding from the manager may not work so the meeting or conversation ends. The manager thinks that things are clear later feels frustrated that work was not done right. She mistakenly assumed that things were clear because her people had no questions.

Why do people not freely share with their manager what they are thinking and feeling about something? A common reason is that they do not feel safe with the manager. When the manager is one who frequently shows impatience, gets angry, or worse, says nasty things that offend and hurt their people, that manager is truly an expert in creating a deep divide between her and her people. Instead of building a solid professional and collaborative relationship based on mutual trust and respect, the manager creates ever bigger and deeper gaps. Often, managers are not aware that their annoyed or ominous facial expressions, or hard tone of voice, or perhaps dismissive manner, create fear that prevents openness and taking risks with you.

Psychological Safety means that people believe and feel they can open up and engage, be honest with what they think and feel, be vulnerable with what they know or do not know, without fear of negative impact to themselves. That is, there is no fear of being judged and suffering consequences that may hurt their image, status or career. Greater Psychological Safety enables more open and candid discussions, enhances team collaboration, and enables a more high performing team.

Psychological safety is said to have been researched and written about by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis (1960s), by William Kahn (1990), and has recently become a buzzword perhaps because of Amy Edmondson’s (2018) work. Check out her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth and her talks/videos.

For the many busy managers who may not be inclined to read, or if you are more of an auditory learner, here are some short videos about Psychological Safety by Amy Edmondson. For the short article, you can listen to the audio version if you prefer or if you are commuting to/from work.

In a nutshell, here are some tips to consider about what can managers think, say, and do, to create Psychological Safety:

STOP: Stop being annoyed, angry, and verbally abusive with your people. Stop thinking that they know what you know because if they do not have your knowledge, aptitudes, education, and experience, they are not as “seasoned” as you are. Stop judging them. Stop making them feel incompetent or stupid.

START: Start thinking of yourself, and behaving, as their coach and mentor, so that together, you and your team can create greater value. Start thinking of how effective your team/group will be when they feel safe to open up to share their ideas and feelings. Start practicing a few things that make people believe and feel safe to take risks with you, e.g., show that you are a vulnerable and imperfect human.

CONTINUE: Continue developing greater self-awareness on what you say/do that make people avoid being open with you vs. what you say/do that make them believe and feel it’s ok to take the risk of being mistaken, admitting lack of knowledge, looking ignorant. Continue reinforcing that you and your team are learners on the same journey with a shared vision and that you will learn and figure out the best possible approaches and solutions to achieve your team/organizational objectives. Continue building up their confidence in thinking on their own, and honing their problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

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KPIs and Alignment of IT Systems

This follow-up piece to the previous one is way overdue. No matter how well thought out the KPIs you have chosen are, and how well cascaded the overall company objectives and KPIs are to each group/department, if the company IT Systems are not aligned as well, then it would be difficult to monitor actual performance and give feedback to those accountable for the results committed.

Part of the rationale for KPIs is to enable those accountable to focus on the few most important results that need to be achieved, and to clarify up front how success will be measured.  If information on the measurement of results are important, IT Systems must be implemented to facilitate the timely measurement and reporting of such measures of success.  Who was it that said, what gets measured gets done?

But what if top management don’t put money where their mouth is and the various departments, IT included, are not given the support they need to enable measurement as part of the day-to-day business operations?  There will be little reliable measures of actual performance to help those accountable assess their progress and take corrective actions to realign their work.

You might think that IT Systems alignment is obvious and that top management would know better to give the support to enable the whole organization to get regular and reliable performance feedback on KPIs through automated information systems. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, perhaps specially with some family businesses and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

It’s challenging enough for managers and executives to maintain high performance without having themselves and their team members also handle the manual collection and reporting of results, or lack of it. The moral of the story is for top management to have the wisdom and discipline to require and support the alignment of IT Systems to report on KPIs.

And, if the company is starting from very little in this area, one way to move forward is to prioritize and create a road map for change.  Typically, a phased approach is necessary to align IT Systems.

What’s key is to plan and then implement the road map for IT Systems alignment, instead of wasting the efforts on defining and cascading objectives and KPIs throughout the company without automated, reliable, and timely measures of performance.

Managing Business Performance Using Objectives, Key Result Areas, Key Performance Indicators and Targets

One of the critical competencies for managers and supervisors is managing the business performance of their departments/sections/units.  More often than not, this is one area where coaching and mentoring is much needed.

One basic approach that can go a long way is to learn more about and apply the use of SMART Objectives, Key Result Areas, Key Performance Indicators, and Targets.  While attending workshops are helpful, reading available materials and books are effective ways to learn as well.  Even more effective is to try out the few KPIs that are most relevant in terms of aligning a department’s objectives with the overall strategic objectives and strategies of the company.

Simply put, a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) is a measure of how well something, an objective, is achieved and gives valuable feedback on whether performance is on track or not so that the manager and team can take appropriate action to get back on track.

Not having clearly defined KPIs is like driving without a clear destination and directions to guide you.  Don’t leave results and outcomes to chance.  Plan the work and then work the plan.  Always have measures and get top management sign off.

Here are some useful resources to get you started on your journey of learning by doing and experimentation.

Here’s an article if you would like to discover more resources on KPIs:   Finding the Right KPIs – 5 KPI Libraries That Are Key to Your Performance.

If the subject of KPIs excites you, there are many resources to study and learn from, and help you equip yourself and your team with the knowledge and skills to effectively plan, execute, monitor and control, and realign business performance.