5 steps to create psychological safety right now

By Grazia Pecoraro, Principal Consultant & Founder, Perspective Hive

In my 7+ years specialising in diversity and inclusion, I’ve found that few employee engagement surveys reveal a real and ingrained culture of fear around people speaking up. While it’s is a good outcome, there’s more to just this at play when creating an environment where employees can challenge the status quo or bring their best and brightest ideas to work with them.

Much has been written about the concept of ‘psychological safety’, a cultural environment where difference is respected and valued, and where people can challenge ideas, concepts and information regardless of their structural position in the organisational hierarchy.

This is where there’s often a discord between what’s apparently a culture of safety in speaking up and the reality of what happens in the daily interactions of employees’ working lives. What happens after someone speaks up is as important as speaking up in the first place.

It manifests, for example, when someone is invited to a product development brainstorm and spends some time preparing their thoughts, only to be told when they put their first idea on the table that “oh we tried that two years ago and it didn’t work”. Or “we’d never get signoff of that, it’s way beyond the budget” and “where’s your facts to back this up?”.

Innovation just ran yelping out the office door. Don’t bother chasing after it, it ain’t coming back.

Because when people don’t feel safe, they’re less likely to take risks, including sharing their views on problem solving, process improvement, or creating new products and services. (score one to the competition). If they believe that sharing their thoughts creates a sense of danger by making them vulnerable to judgement, ridicule or the contribution not being valued, then they will think twice before doing it again.

The oppression of input also occurs in acts of conscious omission. For example, when an employee is asked to prepare a report with financials around a particular service and when they flag inconsistencies, only to be told to “ignore those, they’re not relevant”. The current Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry has highlighted a number of examples of this stifling of information through the organisational hierarchy.

Turn off the autopilot

For leaders juggling their business, clients, teams and a multitude of often competing demands and priorities, actively seeking differing inputs is not an easy skill to acquire. Operating on default settings when against the clock often seems like the best way to get results, but it isn’t as it creates missed opportunities for additional insights, ideas or perspectives. So here are some easy-to-implement techniques so leaders can immediately start creating a protective environment that fosters difference.

  1. Create a framework for evaluation

Be clear on the intent of all your meetings. This does not happen enough. Set an agenda before-hand that states what the purpose is. If it’s about idea generation, then be clear on that. If it’s about generation and evaluation, how will the meeting be structured so that ideas aren’t judged in the creating and sharing process? Get everyone to discuss and agree at the beginning of the meeting what you’re looking to achieve and how you’ll do it. Think about how the ideas themselves will be judged, do you apply weightings to certain criteria such as market differentiation or perhaps ease-of-implementation?

  1. Ask for dissent

Proactively ask people to (respectfully) disagree with what’s being put on the table. Be clear on this. In fact, you can appoint a ‘leader of the opposition’ role – someone who actively challenges everything and who gives permission for others to as well. Make sure quieter voices are also being heard. If ideas are being evaluated, make sure that all perspectives are being considered – Juliet Bourke’s 6 problem solving perspectives are useful to reference here (reflecting risks, people, process, outcomes, evidence, options)

  1. Put the black hat aside

Sometimes, it’s important to actively set out to listen to the ideas and not judge them. There’s plenty of time for that later… Many of us have been coached through our careers to critically evaluate inputs, but this default process is fraught with unconscious bias in the way our thoughts are processed. Putting on the black hat (drawing on Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats model  of thinking about problems) and looking at a decision’s potentially negative outcomes is unfortunately a default for many people. This sacrifices other perspectives such as available data (white hat); using intuition (red hat); optimistic viewpoint (yellow hat); creativity (green hat) and control (blue hat).

  1. Listen to your gut

Good leaders tune into what doesn’t feel or appear right and question ‘why’. This is a skill that society has socialised out of us, with a preference for facts and hard data. But at the end of the day we’re people and when we’re interacting with others, hard data doesn’t necessarily provide the answers. So when somebody proposes an idea or perspective that makes you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself ‘why’. Is it because of who is presenting that idea (somebody who you don’t get on with quite as well) or is it that you’ve pre-framed in your mind what that idea or solution should be? Similarly, when it comes to the conscious omission of information when managing up, it’s important to consider the bigger implications of presenting insights that either look good, or will make others look good, and if it doesn’t feel right then speak up. Similarly, encourage your team to challenge you when you’re only presenting a particular viewpoint or information, to avoid ‘groupthink’ and the deceptive comfort of false consensus.

  1. Circle back

This is where I believe many leaders are getting stuck when navigating the innovation quagmire. Not all ideas are equal and neither should all ideas be given the green light. But the challenge is in making a decision on what gets progressed, without quashing the psychological safety of those whose ideas aren’t going ahead. Circling back to the team is critical. Let them know what went up and why, as well as what didn’t make it through and why. Thank them for their inputs and ask them to keep coming up with fresh and challenging thinking. Leaders also need to take the helicopter view and see which ideas can be pinned onto other projects or concepts. “Let’s add that view into our project on productivity improvement” or “let’s put that one on ice for our next brainstorm on new markets”.  It’s not about giving false placations, it’s about keeping the conversation and communication open. Don’t let good ideas die when the meeting room door opens and everyone goes back to their desks.

This quote from John Maynard Keynes is a good summary: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as in escaping from old ones”. Equally applied to changing the way we behave as leaders, in creating an environment where speaking up doesn’t get shut down.

Leave a Reply