09 Apr A TALE OF TWO MEETINGS: WHAT IS PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY?
It’s my pleasure to share a guest article on psychological safety from Ruthann Weeks, She is a Cultural Change Strategist and Certified Psychological Health and Safety Advisor, specializing in workplace psychological safety and corporate social well-being.
A Tale of Two Meetings: What is Psychological Safety?
Written by Ruthann Weeks, Principal Consultant at Harmony in the Workplace
Psychological safety (PS) is a vague concept to most business owners. Most think it’s about mental health, and while creating an organizational culture of support is part of it, it is so much more.
An environment of PS is about trust in interpersonal risk taking. When PS is in play, individuals are free and encouraged to express thoughts, opinions, and ideas. They are encouraged to report mistakes and near misses as learning opportunities, even when no one is watching, with no fear of reprisal. When PS is present innovation reigns and efficiencies are consistently improved upon. An environment of psychological safety, where every voice matters and workers are permitted to bring their whole selves to the table, this is where the magic happens.
Why Does Psychological Safety Matter?
In 2012 Google set out to find out why some teams were more innovative and high performing than others. After two years of detailed research dubbed Project Aristotle they discovered that the number one factor to high performing teams was psychological safety. It was so important in fact that none of the other team building efforts mattered if they were not already operating in an environment of PS.
Let’s look at a story to gain some insight.
Amanda and Rob are sitting opposite each other on either end of the boardroom table looking at their phones as Kim enters the room for the 10 o’clock meeting. Kim likes to be punctual and have things start on time. He is five minutes early and greets Amanda and Rob as he enters the room. Amanda grunts and Rob looks up briefly and nods an acknowledgement.
They have been asked to bring ideas on new product lines and Kim is bursting with ideas he wants to share. The others straggle in over the next few minutes. The big screen is turned on and the meeting opens to include those working from home. Of the six joining from home, only two of them turn on their cameras. Kim smiles and greets each person by name as they enter the room. He has only been with the company three months and this is his third strategy meeting. He was excited to get this job right out of school. He was eager to bring everything he had been learning about in school, and his ideas to a company that made cool things. His head was full of ideas to build cool things.
Ted is the VP of Research and Development and he leads these monthly meetings. Ted arrives at 10:10 with his assistant and takes his place at the head of the table facing the screen. There are ten in attendance plus those on-line. Ted’s assistant places an agenda in from of him and he welcomes everyone and says, “Let’s get started”. Rob, who has not spoken to a single person since Kim arrived, lays his phone down on the table and sits up straight.
The agenda is simple: VP update, Ideas, Assignments
Immediately Ted goes into his monthly status update, reading the document his assistant has handed him. He then opens the floor to idea pitches and Rob jumps up from his seat and starts walking around the room talking about his idea for a new product. He is very animated and gestures widely as he walks around the boardroom. Ted looks at him like a proud father and congratulates Rob on his idea. Sophie says, “I pitched that idea three months ago.” Ted responds, “I don’t recall that, but you work with Rob and let’s get moving on this thing.” Sophie does not look pleased.
Others start jumping in with ideas as Kim sits quietly waiting his turn. Near the end of the meeting Ted asks, “Anything else?” and Kim speaks up and shares that he has an idea. Immediately, Rob snickers and one of the others rolls her eyes and elbows her colleague. Kim clears his throat and shares his idea to improve one of their widely used systems. He tells them about a mistake he made that nearly led to the permanent damage to some expensive equipment and how a kill-switch can be added, and the procedure amended to avoid that happening again. Immediately, Ted accuses Kim of being reckless and asks if he has filled out a “near miss” report. Kim is taken aback and shares that he is not aware of that report. Ted ends the meeting and tells Kim to file the report at once. Everyone leaves and Kim feels like a failure. He is afraid he is going to get into trouble, maybe even lose his job.
The big screen is turned off. Not one of those working remotely spoke during the meeting.
Amanda and Rob are sitting opposite each other on either end of the boardroom table looking at their phones as Kim enters the room for the 10 o’clock meeting. Kim likes to be punctual and have things start on time. He is five minutes early and greets Amanda and Rob as he enters the room. Amanda puts down her phone and asks Kim how he is doing and if he’s settling in ok so far. Rob says, “Good morning Kim” and goes back to his phone.
They have been asked to bring ideas on new product lines and Kim is bursting with ideas he wants to share. The others straggle in over the next few minutes and the room buzzes with conversation and laughter. The big screen is turned on and the meeting opens to include those working from home. They all have their cameras on, except for Sophie who chats in that she was up in the night with her sick child and is not camera friendly this morning. Some of the others chat in their empathetic encouragements.
Ted arrives at 10:00 sharp with his assistant and takes his place at the head of the table facing the screen.
The agenda is simple: Check-ins, VP update, Ideas, Assignments
Ted welcomes everybody, talks briefly about his past weekend skiing and starts a quick check-in around the table. Some share something that is going on with them personally, some just say hi and the check in moves around the table. Kim shares that he is enjoying a cooking class and is learning how to eat like a “grown-up”. Everyone laughs.
After his status update Ted opens the floor to idea pitches and Rob jumps up from his seat and starts walking around the room talking about his idea for a new product. He is very animated and gestures widely as he walks around the boardroom. Ted looks at Sophie, “You pitched something similar a while ago didn’t you?” “I did” she replied, “we decided then that is was not a priority.” Ted thanks Rob for bringing the topic up again and asks if he would mind working with Sophie to round out the pitch and bring it back to the meeting next month. Ted asks his assistant to add it to the next months agenda. “Sure”, Rob says, “I’d be happy to.”
They start to “popcorn” ideas around the table and when Kim tells them about a mistake he made that nearly led to permanent damage to some of their key systems, and some ideas on how to make sure it can’t happen again, Ted asks him to make sure he fills out a “near miss” report and to send it to him along with details of how to improve the procedure. Ted thanks Kim for sharing his discovery.
Kim’s idea is one of the top five that they decide to take action on that month, and he is proud and happy that he is a valued member of the team.
How To Start Building Psychological Safety Today
Building more connection, support and trust is where to start:
- Leadership buy-in is imperative to creating any lasting change. Not only does management agree in theory, but in practice. PS is about being relational at all levels.
- Re-evaluate and get clear on organizational values and make sure they are playing out in day-to-day operations. If there is a disconnect to stated values and actual culture, that is a problem that damages credibility.
- Communicate strategic intentions throughout the organization and include all employees in some decision-making processes. There is no better way to get buy-in then when each employee knows the overall vision and where they fit to bring it about.
- Adopt a zero tolerance for incivility, workplace abuse and harassment and enforce it. Prevention plans without training and adherence leave employees disengaged.
- Identify workplace wellness ambassadors who really value the principals and utilize them as leaders to spread the word and brainstorm ideas to build connection and support.
Instilling an environment of psychological safety is not always easy, but the premise is simple. Allowing people dignity, respect, and freedom to be themselves is a good place to start building harmony in the workplace.
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