In our last blog – written on the eve of a period of summer reflection, the kind of deep thinking possible during a complete retreat (like my July vacation in Wyoming’s spectacular wilderness) – I addressed the topic of “adaptive space.” That is, temporary organizational structures designed to facilitate rapid change. In that post I neglected to mention something important: namely, adaptive spaces are built on the foundations of psychological safety. Now experiencing a renaissance, I’m glad to report that a growing body of work has focused on understanding the nature of psychological safety, identifying factors that contribute to it, and examining its implications for individuals, teams, and organizations.

In the past I worked closely with a company executive, who, when I wasn’t the brunt of her angry outbursts, used to say to me, “I lost it with **** today.” Highest on the food chain, Rachele (I’ll call her Rachele) often and proudly proclaimed herself a diva; she could not tolerate it when someone did something that did not fit her particular vision of how or what should be done; her outbursts were breathtaking, dreadful, and routine.

Okay, tirade over, take a deep breathe and exhale slowly. You have just instituted a toxic workplace; it is an environment void of psychological safety, and, consequently, thin on creativity and innovation.

I knew Rachele well and she could be kind and charming. I struggled to understand how it was possible that she did not see the damage her tirades inflicted on the company and its diligent employees. Rachele was oblivious, she had no clue that these episodes were destroying employee morale, authorizing others to behave badly, and creating a toxic work environment.

As defined by William Kahn, “psychological safety” means “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.” Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first coined the phrase “team psychological safety.” She described psychological safety as “…a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

After giving it much thought, I’m compelled, not to expound on this construct’s vital importance to organizations striving to succeed in today’s rapid-paced Information Era, but rather, to get personal. In other words, how should a leader act? How should an organization’s formal leaders (versus informal, meaning everybody else) behave in order to build cultures where trust is high and employees can speak freely? Interestingly, after extensive review, I have struggled to find any significant consideration of bad behavior in the leadership and change literature. Yet, leaders behaving badly are as ubiquitous as the damage they inflict. This brings me to the obvious question:

Have you ever lost it at work? Demeaned or raised your voice to a subordinate? Felt justified in your vigorous, take no prisoners, tirade? Conversely, have you ever been verbally abused by an angry boss? If so, do you remember how that made you feel? Humiliated? Discouraged? Cynical?

Sadly, it takes only one public outburst from a leader to bring down the house. One targeted temper-tantrum and forever-more employees will know and understand the risk involved anytime they choose to speak up. Moreover, as for hearing contrary opinions and novel ideas after such an outburst, good luck! Honestly, we can expound on the importance of psychological safety until the cows come home, but, for whatever reason, far too many formal leaders continue to believe that it’s their right to behave badly, and that somehow the organization will be better for it. Bottom line, bad behavior in organizations is ubiquitous and it is more costly then you think.

That said there is good news. In the last two decades there has been significant research and much written on the critical value of psychological safety in the workplace. However, it wasn’t until the Google study on teams – involving hundreds of interviews with Google employees and the analysis of data from hundreds of active teams – that people, especially leaders, began to take notice.

In a 2016 New York Times article, “What Google Learned From its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” author Charles Duhigg reported on the surprisingly simple results of the Google study:

  1. Good teams are characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect that creates psychological safety.
  2. The influence of group norms (the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather) on team performance is profound.

At the heart of Google’s study was the finding that how people treat one another greatly influences group performance. They found that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to high-functioning teams, and that innovation thrives when the leader creates norms allowing people to do the messy and unpredictable work that is required to innovate.

Does this information come as a surprise? If so, you might be asking how one goes about creating a psychologically safe work environment. To begin, we know that, first and foremost, leaders (formal and informal) must treat others with dignity and respect. ALWAYS. This is paramount. Next?

Here are Dr. Edmondson’s three main tips to consider when creating a psychologically safe team environment:

  1. Frame the work as a learning challenge, not an execution challenge: This is the perfect opportunity to model the methods of a learning organization.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility: The research carried out by Edmondson and Google suggests that high performance teams make mistakes but are more willing to discuss them with each other.
  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions
: Every time you don’t ask that question you’re robbing yourself and the rest of the team of an opportunity to learn.

Back to Rachele. Her behavior is a common artifact of a bygone era THAT is detrimental to the adaptive capacity needed for today’s organizations to survive and prosper. Moral of this story: stay calm and curious. Success depends on it!

If you are interested to learn more, check out Dr. Amy Edmondson’s You Tube video, Building a psychologically safe workplace:

While you are at it don’t miss, How to start changing an unhealthy work environment, by Glenn D. Rolfsen

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