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Why Psychological Safety is the Key to Being Better than Before


 — August 4th, 2021

Why Psychological Safety is the Key to Being Better than Before

#3 in a four-part series on the critical importance of psychological safety in the workplace.

Today’s leaders must be willing to take on the job of driving fear out of the organization to create the conditions for learning, innovation and growth – Amy Edmondson

From remote and hybrid work to changes in office space, technology, and performance management, many organizations are looking ahead and using the lessons of the pandemic to build back better than before. In our work and our research, we see four big shifts happening.

  1. Work will no longer be a place
  2. Change is accelerating
  3. The workplace will be more human
  4. Belonging and connection are vital

These shifts must include psychological safety to truly be “better than before”.

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Remote and Hybrid Work

When it comes right down to it, remote and hybrid work is about empowering people and giving them flexibility. As we rethink work and leave our old notions behind, we’ll need to create a psychologically safe workplace.

This change to the way we approach work is a journey that will require open conversations and the courage to try new things.

Flexible work and increased autonomy will also challenge the ability of teams to succeed.

Choosing how to do your best work is one thing but understanding how to navigate this new paradigm when you work in a team or even multiple, cross-functional teams, is a different challenge.

The answer is rooted in the conclusions reached by Google in a study they called Project Aristotle. This large-scale study set out to identify the secret to successful teams.

Researchers found that it was the ability of teams to have open conversations, ask judgment-free questions and make mistakes (sounds familiar?) that stood out above all as the necessary ingredients.

As organizations, teams and individuals navigate more flexible ways of working, psychological safety is critical.

Change-ready Organizations

I spent much of my career communicating change and eventually came to a remarkable conclusion: the secret to successful change isn’t more clunky change communication and change management - it’s building an organization that thrives on change.

In organizations that thrive on change, employees have a learning and growth mindset. They are not afraid of making mistakes and taking risks.

As early as 1965 (I know that’s a long time ago because it’s the year I was born!), professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that psychological safety was critical for helping people overcome learning anxiety.

It also helped them focus on achieving shared goals.

Change is often driven from the top with little or no involvement from the people that are experiencing the change. It’s one of the reasons why 70% of change initiatives fail.

In a fearless organization where leaders listen with open minds and where employees feel safe to speak up, people are involved in shaping the change. They may even be the force behind it.

Making Work More Human

If there is one thing that I know about humans, it’s that we’re not perfect (I am living proof!) Yet, in organizations where psychological safety doesn’t exist, people live in fear of making a mistake.

In fearless organizations, leaders display humility and are not afraid to admit that they don’t have all the answers. Instead, they ask good questions and listen deeply.

While psychologically safety doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for excellence, fearless organizations recognize that people are human and may fail as part of the process of learning, growing, and innovating.

Belonging and Community

Before the pandemic, mental health experts were sounding the alarm. Burnout and loneliness were on the rise.

Organizations seeking to create a better employee experience organized community-building events and put a renewed focus on employee health and wellbeing.

Then the pandemic hit, and things got worse. Now as we look to the future, creating organizations where people can bring their whole selves to their work, where there is a feeling of belonging, and where there is a strong sense of community is a high priority.

Psychological safety is essential to this. If you’ve been following these blogs, you probably think that I believe psychological safety cures cancer – but hear me out.

Think of a time when you felt that you belonged and were part of a community. Chances are you felt free to speak up, felt trusted, respected and were free to be yourself.

This demonstrates that during this time you felt psychologically safe within your organization, which is exactly what we want.

As internal communications professionals help leaders navigate the challenges of a post-pandemic world, building cultures with psychological safety should be a top priority.

In my next blog, I will share the strategies and ideas we’ve used with clients to create psychological safety in your organization.

(In the final part of this series, on next Wednesday, August 11th, Andrea reveals A Roadmap for Creating Psychological Safety in Your Organization)

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

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