by Quint Studer, author of “The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How To Lead People and Places That Thrive“
When Google conducted its internal research study Project Aristotle in 2015, it found that psychological safety — the belief that one can speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without punishment or humiliation — was the most important characteristic in terms of what makes a team productive.
While everyone wants to feel safe at work, few things are more dangerous to the health of an organization than for leaders to surround themselves with people who only agree with them, or act like they do when in reality they don’t.
People sometimes share with me that their job is to make the boss look good. I usually reply that it’s much more important for them to help the boss be good. If the leader is going down a wrong path, the people around them must be willing to speak up and push back. But when people don’t feel safe enough to tell the truth, this can’t happen, and you’ll never be a high-performing organization.
We may feel unsafe when a boss (or any coworker) yells, says hurtful or disrespectful things, threatens retribution, or makes irrational demands. The primitive part of the brain sees this behavior as life-threatening and the fight-or-flight response takes over. When this happens (or when we anticipate that it might happen), we can’t think, much less speak up when something is wrong. And so we don’t; we shut down and take the “safest” route.
There are many reasons we want employees to feel psychologically safe. Honest feedback is critical to the long-term health of the organization. Employees are closest to operations. If they don’t share the truth about what’s really happening, small problems could turn into major ones. They have day-to-day exposure to things the boss would never know. They will be less likely to be innovative if they are afraid to take risks and fail. They need to be comfortable making mistakes or speaking up when there is a problem.
On a company-wide level our teams must be able to bounce ideas off each other, participate in strategic thinking, and strengthen action plans. The only way for a company to get better and stay competitive is to cultivate a culture where employees regularly collaborate, communicate, and innovate. This is where new and good ideas come from. The soft skills that are so vital and in demand right now simply can’t thrive in an environment where people don’t feel safe and free to share their ideas, perspectives, and feedback.
So, how do we create a psychologically safe workplace? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Know the difference between positive feedback and good feedback.
We all prefer positive feedback, but make sure you’re not sending the message that this is the only kind you want from employees. Good feedback isn’t always positive. It can be critical or even negative, but it’s always thoughtful and honest. Reward and recognize this kind of feedback when you get it. And when you get positive feedback, ask that it be specific and supported by valid metrics of success and is not just a “pat on the back” from someone who is afraid to speak up.
2. Model vulnerability.
Acknowledge your own mistakes and show that you learn from them. This goes a long way toward helping people see that it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes.
3. Be aware of how you react to bad news.
It gives employees clues as to how you will act when they bring negative feedback. Don’t let them see you blow up when faced with a problem. When this happens, they feel unsafe and are far less likely to share what needs to be shared.
4. Don’t shoot the messenger. Make it clear that it’s always safe to bring you bad news.
When you get upset with people for letting you know something is wrong, you squelch communication. People avoid telling you the truth while issues are still fixable, so they stay unresolved and continue to grow until one day they explode. Far better to make sure people feel completely comfortable telling you the truth, even when it’s something you don’t want to hear.
5. Don’t play the blame game.
Instead of focusing on who is at fault, focus on what to do now. Blaming solves nothing and it kills accountability. When they know they will be blamed, employees will go to great lengths to avoid telling you about problems that need to be fixed. Also, when people feel blamed, they shut down and just do what you say rather than taking a thoughtful approach and helping solve the problem. Be sure not to demean or belittle when mistakes are made.
6. Intentionally create a culture where feedback is encouraged.
It should be normal and expected that people give feedback to each other as well as to the boss. Explain to staff that you need to hear from them, especially direct reports, anytime they feel you are off track and/or there may be consequences you are missing. Ask questions like What am I missing? What am I not thinking of? Say, “Please speak up; don’t let us go down the wrong track.” Narrate that employees are closest to the problems and see solutions that leaders may not be able to see. Repeat and reinforce this message often. Make seeking out and giving feedback a normal part of the routine. Ask for feedback when you share an idea and give specific guidelines and time frames on where, when, and how. Put processes in place that get employees in the habit of asking for feedback from you and from coworkers at certain stages of a project. You want everyone to get in the feedback habit.
7. Demonstrate your openness to feedback by taking an opposite or flawed position or making a statement that’s obviously untrue.
If someone steps up and points out your error, tell them thank you. If no one steps up, explain what you did and ask what you can do to make the environment safer so that people will be more willing to speak up in the future.
8. Take their feedback seriously.
When you get a good idea from an employee, use it if you possibly can. Even if something is not a good idea, explain why it may not work; don’t just say “no.” This teaches people that you really do want their input and you’re not insistent on running the show yourself.
9. Create rules of engagement and tailor them to the needs of the people in the group.
The last thing you want is for someone on your team to get overly confrontational with (or in response to) feedback. When people feel attacked, it shuts down the flow of ideas. Put standards in place for how to manage giving and receiving feedback and for how to handle conflict. These guidelines should be responsive to the concerns of the group and the challenges they face. Break the Golden Rule: It’s not about managing others how you would like to be managed, but figuring out how they need to be managed.
10. Nurture curiosity. Encourage people to ask why and question decisions.
Even if they don’t come away with a better idea or a way to improve it, understanding the thought process behind decisions will help them grow as thinkers and make them more likely to step forward when they do have something to say.
11. Practice active listening.
Don’t let people feel like they are shouting into a void. Pay attention to what they are saying and let your body language and responses reflect this. Paraphrase what you’re hearing and repeat back to them. Respond to their ideas thoughtfully and respectfully. When you model active listening, employees are likely to pick up on this and do the same.
12. Embrace radical candor.
Be direct. Don’t be unnecessarily harsh, but make a point not to sugarcoat the things you say. Likewise, don’t expect things to be sugarcoated for you. Most people respond well to transparency, clarity, and openness. People like knowing where they stand and what is expected of them. This style creates a healthy give and take between leaders and employees.
13. Get people together face-to-face as often as you can.
Technology is a good thing in many ways, but it definitely has its shortcomings. For example, it can be hard to communicate tone with digital communication. Feedback is better given and received in a face-to-face interaction. Plus, it is just easier to build the trust and camaraderie that make for great teamwork when all parties can see facial expressions and body language.
14. If someone is generally quiet or unresponsive, call on them to share feedback.
“Introverts in particular can have a hard time competing with louder voices in the room,” says Studer. “They deserve to be heard, also. But also know that they may feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts in writing, after they’ve had a chance to process them.”
15. Separate “truthsayers” from “troublemakers.”
Some folks are just going to always be negative or find a problem to vocalize. Don’t let these people poison the well. Separate them and their feedback from the good feedback of others on the team. Rocking the boat is not always good, nor is it always bad. Just learn the difference between good feedback and disruptions.
16. Know the difference between a “skill” issue and a “will” issue and handle accordingly.
Sometimes even when you’ve done everything you can to help people feel safe, an employee may consistently fail to engage or contribute on the level that you expect. Or maybe they constantly stir up trouble and make others feel unsafe. At some point, you will need to determine whether this is a “will” or a “skill” issue.
If it’s a skill problem, provide coaching or training. If they have a will problem, you might need to have a tough conversation. Explain what the person needs to do to improve their performance, lay out the consequences if they don’t, then follow up. Often you’ll find the person does improve. If not, the best course of action may be to move them out of the organization.
A leader’s job is to help people do their best work as well as improve and grow so they can perform at an even higher level in the future. Psychological safety is the basis for all kinds of positive emotions like trust, confidence, and curiosity — all of which pave the way for vital skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. When we help people develop and nurture these skills, we give them a great gift. We set them up to thrive, not just inside our company but throughout their career.
Quint Studer is author of “The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How To Lead People and Places That Thrive“and founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community’s quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa counties forward. He is a businessman, a visionary, an entrepreneur, and a mentor to many. He currently serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida.