Psychological Safety: a necessity for organizational success

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What is psychological safety? 

It is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn, 1990). In a psychological safe environment, individuals speak up, share their opinions and ideas openly, take risks, admit failures, learn from the failures and have open honest discussions.  

Extensive research (of more than a few decades) on psychological safety has been done by Amy C. Edmondson, a Harvard Business School Professor. Her most recent podcast with HBR was featured early this year. “Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace” is worth hearing. 

What does research say about it?

  • Gallup data reveals that with psychological safety, “organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.” 
  • Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’ study shows that teams with high rates of psychological safety perform better and implement diverse ideas. 
  • Amy Edmondson research reveals that “psychological safety predicts quality improvements, learning behavior and productivity.” 
  • Various empirical research studies highlight that psychological safety fosters team innovation and employee engagement. 

Is psychological safety universally applicable across different national cultures?

Yes, it is. Companies are operating at the transnational level. Disruptive innovation is global. Organizations are striving towards building new products/solutions and offering new services to customers across the globe. It’s but natural that organizational members need to exchange ideas, collaborate as a symphonic orchestra, experiment, and have candid conversations about risks, failures and success. This is possible only when companies make psychological safety a part of their culture, irrespective of high-low power distance and hierarchical or flat structure. 

Edmondson aptly mentions “psychological safety is just as important for excellence in any organization around the world. It’s just harder to get there.” 

Psychological safety: the bedrock of Agile HR

Agile HR is about responding to human capital needs (at organization, team and individual levels) in a quick, positive and engaging way. To make this happen, psychological safety should be a key component of Agile HR as research explicates its importance in fostering innovation, engagement and constructive team culture – a must in today’s disruptive business landscape.  

HR leaders and practitioners should collaborate with their business peers to build the culture of psychological safety. However, prior to this cross-collaboration, it’s important for HR leaders and their internal team to walk the talk and practice what they preach. Why? In most of the workplaces, it’s very common to hear ‘HR has no voice’. This can be attributed to structural and/or behavioral issues at the leadership level and/or within the HR function. In many instances, HR comes in its own way to speed up decision-making process or implement new practices or create a psychological safety environment. 

Let’s take an instance of recruitment. Often, there is a lack of working agreement and collaboration among the key stakeholders involved in the hiring process. How many members step up to voice their concerns and opinions during the hiring process? Do they have candid discussions about the key variables that are causing the delay in hiring process? Do members feel safe and own up that their schedules or work style is creating a bottleneck for talent fulfillment? In a war for talent era, where candidates choose companies and employer brand is critical, it’s imperative for the stakeholders to be on the same page about each phase and their involvement within the hiring process. 

Performance appraisal. What is the purpose of performance appraisal in a company? Is this purpose valued and shared by people across all the levels within the organization? Does the nature of work within the organization support the purpose? HR leaders need to use powerful questions to encourage co-operation and ideation across their teams so that individuals feel safe to engage, trust, and share concerns and ideas openly. 

Building an organizational culture of psychological safety is highly important in today’s economy and it should begin with executives and leadership team. Also, its HR’s responsibility to engage their teams and employees in ideation, teamwork, and learning. Setting examples within one’s own team can ignite similar model behaviors across the organization. “It’s important to note that psychological safety is a necessary not sufficient condition for organizational learning, innovation, or excellence.”  

Author: Lakshmi CV |