• Dr. Jeff Doolittle

4 Keys to Creating Psychological Safety



Have you ever felt it wasn’t safe to speak up at work? This challenge is universal. According to a study involving over 195,000 US employees, only 30% strongly believe their opinion really matters. Contemporary workplace challenges are increasingly defined by incredible technological advances and workforce friction. Evidence suggests that psychological safety is at the core of highly competitive organizations. An absence of physical safety leads to serious accidents, but the absence of psychological safety leads to poor employee mental health and company performance below expectations. Growth in knowledge-intensive business requires the creativity and skills of many employees built on timely and candid collaboration. There is no perfect organizational culture, and there is no infallible leader. It is best to consider both continuous works in progress. Here are four keys to nurturing psychological safety for executives to keep in mind.





What is psychological safety?


We all share a need to belong. Psychological safety is a condition when you feel included, able to learn, contribute, and provide critical feedback without fear of being embarrassed, excluded, or penalized.


The goal is to increase intellectual friction while decreasing social friction, and the four sequential stages of psychological safety are:


  1. Inclusion safety – We are constantly dividing the world between them and us. Inclusion safety is creating a shared identity, so others are viewed as being in the same group.

  2. Learner safety – This is feeling safe enough to experiment, ask questions, and fail as a part of the learning process.

  3. Contributor safety – Is participating as an active full-fledged member of the team supported by autonomy and encouragement.

  4. Challenger safety – This is the last stage when others are able to provide constructive criticism and engage in productive conflict without fear of exclusion or retaliation. This is the stage where individuals can innovate.


Psychological safety is different than trust. Trust is if you will give others the benefit of doubt, and psychological safety is the environment influencing if others will give you the benefit of doubt. Psychological safety helps you and others work better together. Trust is a component of psychological safety.


It is extremely dangerous in a competitive marketplace not to have a culture of psychological safety. When it is emotionally expensive in the workplace to share what you think and feel, it triggers a self-censoring instinct that shuts down and blocks collaboration and innovation.


Psychological safety is a tool for leaders to help care for followers. Whispers become shouts as an executive leader. How you approach creating psychological safety as a peer is different than as a leader due to positional power in the relationship.


“The presence of fear in an organization is the first sign of weak leadership.” Timothy Clark




Key 1: Humility

It is OK to be confident, however, when executives appear to be asking a leading question or know everything, few people will take the risk of upsetting the leader. Smart executives realize there is always more to learn, and humility is not the opposite of confidence. Being humble is recognizing that you may miss something without being inclusive of others' points of view.


Key 2: Selfless love

St. Thomas Aquinas stated that “to love is to will the good of the other.” As an executive, your whispers become shouts within the organization. Self-awareness, empathy, and compassion rather than the use of a position of power are needed to practice selfless love. Self-awareness improves verbal and non-verbal communication clarity and the ability to understand multiple perspectives. Empathy helps you understand how others are feeling, and compassion inspires actions that are helpful. Willing for the good of your followers is caring so much that you are willing to risk failing.


Selfless love may seem complex and challenging to articulate, much less measure, however, validated measurement instruments exist. Like competencies and behaviors, selfless love can be developed. Virtue and character development involve learning, reasoning, and practice.


Key 3: Performance-based accountability

Psychological safety matters, but it is a means to an end, not the end. Providing clear expectations and giving feedback is essential for employees to achieve high-performance levels.


When psychological safety is high, but performance accountability is low, results suffer. Without a focus on the organizational results, there is no incentive to be proactive. It is logical to think that creating comfort is a good place to be, but ideas can die, people coast, and problems not get resolved without performance-based accountability.


The following TEDx presentation by Annie Edmondson provides some insight into the value of performance-based accountability in building a psychologically safe workplace.





Key 4: Vulnerability

Although leaders are expected to convey an image of competence, confidence, and power, followers already know you are not perfect. Being vulnerable as a leader requires courage. Leadership vulnerability involves the willingness to take risks that might end in failure or create the best of what might be in the organization.


The following short video from Simon Sinek expands on the tension leaders face.





Practicing vulnerability as a leader involves checking your motivation, vision, and paradigm (MVP) before having a difficult conversation.

  • Motivation. Is your motivation about caring for others first? Or is your motivation to be right? Goals for a conversation matter.

  • Vision. How do you see the result of the conversation going? When you see a conversation as a positive step in the journey, it provides a sense of purpose and direction.

  • Paradigm. Is your paradigm for the difficult conversation that real transparent conversation will provide the best foundation for a healthy culture and your relationship? When the lens through which you perceive the difficult conversation is off, your results will turn out poorly.


You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions. Naguib Mahfouz




Good leadership habits to build psychological safety


Here are a few specific good leadership habits taken from research for setting the stage, inviting participation, and responding effectively to build psychological safety:

  • Ask questions proactively. Address employees by name and ask questions that you don’t have an answer for, that don’t limit responses to a yes or no (or either or choice), and that helps others think about a topic in a new way. For example, you may have a goal to improve an absence of diversity in the organization. Instead of asking others how they can improve the situation, a better way would be to ask others how the organization can embrace diversity.

  • Be transparent. Keep conversations genuine, especially when it involves your mistakes. Being transparent pertains to both the logical rationale aspects of the conversation as well as your feelings about the other person and the conversation.

  • Be willing to learn. Vulnerability is about being weak to defend your point of view and desiring to listen and learn something new. When asking for feedback, it is essential to remember that it is a gift given. Silence is expensive. A good tactic is to ask others for what you need to hear but that they think you may not want to hear.

  • Avoid blame. Use collaborative language. For example, how can we (instead of you) make this better? We statements turn the responsibility into a group effort, keeping the emphasis on the solution rather than an individual.

  • Set expectations about failure. Innovation is increasingly important and dangerous for leaders. Organizations desire certainty, success, and efficiency, and it is uncertainty, failure, and inefficiency that are sources of innovation. Many organizations are designed to keep leaders from taking risks. It is important for leaders to differentiate between excusable and inexcusable failure.

  • Express appreciation. Compensation for the work is not enough. The rewards and incentives you provide can be as simple as saying thank you. Effective reward and recognition systems target specific behaviors, are applied immediately, are tailored to what the individual values, are focused on what and how, and present everyone the same opportunity to achieve the reward or recognition.

  • Use participatory decision-making styles. Although delegating and making command decisions have a place, they should not be the only or primary styles of leadership decision-making. Highly participatory styles such as consulting and facilitating not only improve feelings of belonging but they improve decision quality.


So, what is the challenge for you to invite others to challenge the status quo? What steps can you take to create autonomy for followers to contribute in their own way to deliver results?





References


Clark. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety : defining the path to inclusion and innovation (First edition.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Incorporated.


Daniels, A. (2016). Bringing out the best in people: How to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement (3rd edition). McGraw-Hill.


Edmondson. (2019). The fearless organization : creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth (1st edition). Wiley.


Edmondson, A. & Hugander, P. (2021). 4 Steps to boost psychological safety at your workplace. Harvard Business Review.


Frazier, Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(1), 113–165.


Gallup. (2020). State of the American Workplace Report.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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