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.
- Creating Psychological Safety at Work in a Knowledge Economy (3:14 mins)
- How Do You Create Psychological Safety at Work, Interview (3:25 mins)
- Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace, TED Talk (11:26 mins)
- Fearless – Creating Psychological Safety for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (50:42 mins)
- How Psychological Safety Actually Works, Forbes Article (13 mins)
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.