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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Noble

Is Your Workplace Psychologically Safe?




There was once an emperor who was obsessed with fashion. He loved fashion so much that he ignored many of his responsibilities in favor of expanding his wardrobe or showing it off.


One day, two men came to town and claimed to weave the most magnificent of fabrics imaginable. Not only were their clothes uncommonly fine, but clothes made of a particular cloth that became invisible to anyone who was unfit for his position or who was unusually stupid.


Naturally, the emperor had to have clothes made from this fabric. He paid the men large sums of money to get started immediately on a new outfit. As they worked, the excited emperor became curious about their progress. He sent his honest old minister to check on them. When the minister arrived and observed the two men diligently working, he was aghast. He could not see anything at all. He thought to himself, “Can it be that I’m a fool? I’d have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be a minister? It would never do to let on that I can’t see the cloth.” Rather than admit he could not see the cloth, the minister decided to praise it describing it as enchanting and beautiful and reported back to the emperor how fine the clothing would be.


The two men asked for more money, more silk, and more gold thread. The excited emperor obliged and sent another trustworthy official to see how the work progressed. The official repeated the same behavior as the minister, praising the material for its beautiful colors and exquisite pattern, even though he could see nothing either. He reported back to the emperor how the cloth held him spellbound in its beauty.


The emperor could not contain his excitement any longer and visited the swindlers himself. Only, to his horror, he could not see the non-existent cloth. He thought, “Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the emperor?” Yet, he could not let anyone know, so he praised the cloth and gave it his highest approval. His entire entourage joined in to express their admiration for the cloth that they could not see.


The swindlers pretended to take the clothing off the loom while the emperor undressed. They carefully placed the fictional clothes around him and all shouted their praises. It was time for the emperor to show off his new clothes to the town.


So, off he went in procession through town. Naked.


Why wouldn’t the emperor’s advisors admit they could not see the cloth? Because they were afraid. They were afraid of humiliation. Of retaliation. If their emperor thought they were unfit for their office, he would fire them or worse. Because of this dynamic, the emperor humiliates himself, embarrasses the empire, loses lots of money, and creates some unseeable memories for the poor townsfolk.


Nearly two centuries after its publication, the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is still one rich with leadership lessons. Only, we now have updated terminology and research to support its takeaway. There was a single person to blame for the series of unfortunate events outlined in this literary folktale. It wasn’t the old honest minister or the other trusted official who lied to the emperor about seeing the thread. It wasn’t even the two swindlers. It was the emperor. This was a leadership failure. It came from the emperor’s inability to create an environment that was psychologically safe.


Psychological safety is defined as the belief that someone can speak up without the risk of punishment or ridicule. It is a vital component of an optimally functioning workplace, and it has been linked to greater innovation, higher-quality decision making, and healthier group dynamics among co-workers. It has also been associated with higher integrity in the workplace. The term was first coined by psychologist, Carl Rogers, in the 1950s but has recently been popularized by the research of Harvard Business School Professor- Amy Edmondson.


Edmondson first looked at psychological safety in healthcare settings. She wanted to assess how psychological safety affected medical errors among healthcare providers. Her initial findings were surprising. They revealed that healthcare practices that were more psychological safe made more medical errors…or so she thought. However, when looking more closely at the data, she discovered an important distinction. It wasn’t that employees of more psychologically safe practices made more mistakes. It was that they reported more mistakes. In other words, healthcare practices who had more psychologically safe environments were more likely to speak up when they messed up. This means they felt safe to admit when they made an error which created an opportunity for the organization to learn from their failures.


When employees work in environments that lack psychological safety, they find themselves constantly in self-preservation mode. Their goal in meetings is simply to get through them without embarrassment. Sure, the fear of punishment motivates them to get to work on time and to complete their assignments thoroughly and without error, but it stops there. Because they are fearful of ridicule, they don’t speak up when they have a brilliant idea that could propel the company forward. Because mistakes are not tolerated, they opt to hide any errors rather than self-reporting them and correcting the issue immediately. Their focus is on their own survival, not on the betterment of the organization.


As Peter Parker’s wise uncle reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility. Leaders control the thermostat that determines the level of psychological safety in their workplace. A leader’s willingness to show vulnerability, ask questions, and reinforce innovative initiatives sets the example for employees to follow. Leaders who want to increase psychological safety in the workplace, should consider the following practices.


Model Humility


No one is perfectly self-assured, and that includes those in leadership positions. Too often, leaders feel like they must be all-knowing and act as such during staff meetings. This sets the tone that it’s not ok to be without an answer, leading subordinates to provide beauty-pageant-worthy responses to questions when a simple “I don’t know” would have been more appropriate and less time-consuming.

Leaders who show vulnerability by acknowledging when they don’t know something are perceived as more trustworthy by subordinates. They also model that transparency is not just preached but it’s practiced here.


Be Curious, Not Judgmental


Taking a lesson from the Ted Lasso leadership playbook, leaders who ask genuine questions rather than jumping to conclusions are those who give employees an opportunity to explain their rationale for a decision or behavior. There’s a time and place for holding someone accountable, but there should be a thorough investigation before any judgments are laid down. When a leader is quick to assign blame to undesirable outcomes, employees are quick to want to defend themselves or, worse, hide their mistakes to stay out of the crosshairs.


A helpful framework for fleshing out the cause of a poor outcome with an employee in a manner that can preserve psychological safety is to 1) describe the observed outcome or behavior in non-judgmental terms (“At the staff meeting this morning, I noticed you became agitated at Margaret and called her lazy.”), 2) give the employee an opportunity to explain what happened (“Can you help me understand what’s going on between you two?”), and 3) provide the implications of their behavior (“So, you are frustrated with Margaret’s lack of initiative. Did you notice how she responded when you confronted her in front of the team? My vision for the culture here is one of both accountability and team cohesion…”). By giving employees a chance to explain their behavior while also providing the rationale behind corrective feedback, leaders create understanding, consistency, and trust among their employees.


Praise Efforts Against the Status Quo


The real power behind psychological safety is the innovative growth that accompanies it. In order to encourage this growth, leaders need to deliberately reinforce employee efforts that go against the status quo. For example, if it’s the norm among a group to remain quiet in meetings and an employee speaks up with a thoughtful question, the group’s leader should make it a point to publicly praise that employee’s behavior.


If companies value innovation, intelligent risk-taking, and learning, they should consider celebrating failures. Failures are opportunities for growth. As Henry Ford put it, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” If your employees aren’t experiencing failures, they aren’t growing, and thus your organization isn’t growing. When leaders celebrate the courage that accompanies failed endeavors, they help their employees rethink failed initiatives as catalysts for growth.


 

A great leader is one who cultivates a healthy workplace. Healthy workplaces are those in which employee well-being and organizational productivity are both maximized. If you are a leader who values growth, innovation, and transparency, you are someone who needs to cultivate a workplace that is psychologically safe. Or else, your employees may fail to inform you when you aren’t wearing any clothes.




























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