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  1. Have you ever been in a work situation where you wanted to speak up but held back?  Perhaps you were in a meeting where you kept your great idea to yourself.  Perhaps it was when your boss announced a decision you felt would be a mistake.  Perhaps you discovered an unsafe or unethical practice frequently performed by colleagues with more years on the job than you.  Most of us have experienced these types of situations, and the reason for our silence is fear.

Why Psychological Safety is Important

In her TEDx Talk, Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, and author discusses psychological safety and how its absence can cause a lack of voice among employees or “workplace silence”.  Her research has shown that if we don’t feel psychologically safe, we might not speak up — and that can be very bad for business.

So, what is psychological safety?  As Prof. Edmondson explains, even though we may not go to work each day in a state of fear, we may find ourselves in situations that threaten us.  The good news is that since childhood, we have been practicing how to protect ourselves in risky situations.  We have learned that if we don’t want to look ignorant, we shouldn’t ask questions.  If we don’t want to look incompetent, we shouldn’t admit a weakness or a mistake.  If we don’t want to appear intrusive, we shouldn’t offer ideas.  If we don’t want to look negative, we shouldn’t criticize the status quo.  However,  silence has a steep price; it costs the organization new ideas, innovation, learning, growth, a healthy and supportive culture,  and it can even impact physical safety.

How to Create Psychological Safety

We can all contribute towards creating a culture of psychological safety, but leaders must be the example.  Prof. Edmondson  sets out three simple ways this can be done:

  1. Frame the work being done as a learning exercise. As we cannot know the future, solving a problem through some degree of trial and error is to be expected. Positioning it this way helps create psychological safety because it tells employees they won’t be punished for failure because failure is simply part of the process.
  2. Acknowledge your fallibility, not just to your peers, but to your subordinates, too. This communicates that you and the organization accept that each employee, including their superiors, are all just human, and that humans don’t always get everything right.
  3. Model curiosity. Ask questions and encourage others to do the same; not just for clarification, but to elicit constructive criticism, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Question-asking should be the norm and no-one should be afraid to ask one.

A workplace with psychological safety can free employees to be their full selves and contribute to the best of their ability. This can be hugely beneficial for the organization and even give it a competitive edge. In personal relationships, feeling psychologically safe can help foster honesty, trust, better communication,  and a closer, more satisfying relationship.

For more about psychological safety read  Amy C. Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization  — Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth.  To arrange an appointment to discuss how you can create a more psychologically safe place for your team, or if you are feeling psychologically unsafe at work and need coaching, connect with us at (905) 703-0003.

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