Psychological safety is not about being nice. It is about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes and learning from each other. We see this kind of organisational culture is increasingly important in the modern economy. It is about candour, taking risks, being willing to say, “I screwed that up” and being willing to ask for help.
A real-life example of the absence of psychological safety is the American Bank, Wells Fargo. In 2015, it was viewed as one of the world’s most admired organisations. It was very much a customer-oriented, household-oriented bank. Their strategy was to use cross-selling. It is easier to leverage an already existing relationship and sell more products than to build new relationships. They even had a slogan “Going for GR8”. The idea was that the bank should be able to sell a customer eight different financial services products. Unfortunately, the idea did not take into considerations that people could not afford eight different products.
The executives did not get any indication that this idea was not practical. Thus, they continued to push the idea and wanted to achieve the targets that were set. The managers were very tough. They were not receptive to feedback that the idea might not work, and the employees really did not feel it was safe to push back – to say this isn’t working, it can’t be done. If psychological safety had been present, the idea could have been tweaked before being sent to market, which could have potentially avoided the business failure.
An industry that has mastered psychological safety in the workplace, and has gained a competitive advantage, is the movie industry. Most movie producers and most movie houses will have an occasional hit and then a few failures. Pixar is a company that has had 17 major box office successes in a row that have also been critically acclaimed. It is an unheard-of success.
Ed Catmull, recently retired president of Pixar, went out of his way to create, and keep creating, a psychologically safe environment where candour and critical feedback is expected. He did this in two fundamental ways:
- Behavioural: Catmull often said things like “Here’s the mistake I made,” because leaders have to go first. Leaders have to show that they know that they are fallible human beings.
- Structural: He set up meetings and sessions that were designed in thoughtful ways to make it easier for people to give each other candid feedback or to really critique the movie. He often said “Early on, all of our movies are bad. You know, they’re terrible.” He always highlighted that he said it, not because it’s necessarily good news, but because he wanted everyone to know that it is just part of the journey. There is no way of becoming brilliant without going through bad experiences. One needs to just keep pushing back until it is made better. Catmull always said that criticising is never enjoyable, but he would rather get feedback from people he worked with than from the box office later.
People always ask how to build psychological safety and, drawing upon Catmull’s approach, it can be divided into three aspects:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not as an execution problem. Leaders can explicitly state that there is enormous uncertainty ahead and interdependence. “ We have never been here before. And, as a result, we do not know what will happen, so, we need everyone’s brains and voices in the game.” This assists in building a rationale for speaking up.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility: Leaders, like Catmull, need to acknowledge that they are imperfect too by saying things like: “I may miss something I need to hear from you.”
- Model curiosity: Ensure to always ask a lot of questions which creates a necessity for voice.
These three factors can contribute towards a workplace where potential catastrophe – due to people being too scared to speak up – is avoided.
Caprino, K. (2018). How to build work cultures of psychological safety rather than fear. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/#6c257f312254
Edmondson, A. (2014). Building a psychologically safe workplace [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8
Edmondson, A. (2018). The importance of psychological safety. Retrieved from https://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/the-importance-of-psychological-safety
Nickisch, C. (2019). Creating psychological safety in the workplace. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/ideacast/2019/01/creating-psychological-safety-in-the-workplace