WORDS BY OWEN LESKOVAR
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH HARRINGTON
Psychological Safety is the shared belief among team members that it’s safe to take risks, make mistakes, and be vulnerable in front of each other.
We probably don’t need to convince you that it’s important. In two now-famous studies, Google found that the ability to cultivate psychological safety was the biggest predictor of successful managers and that it was also the single most important quality for team performance.
Yes – people do better work when they can experiment in an open, supportive, and non-judgmental environment. And yet according to Gallup, only 3 in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count.
There have been countless articles written about Psychological Safety, how crucial it is, and how leaders can cultivate it in their organizations and teams. But we don’t need to recapitulate them here. Rather, this article is focused on tangible ways that you can leverage internal communications to instill psychological safety.
The fear of looking stupid
Much of the time, the more skilled and high-performing your culture is, the less psychologically safe it can be. Smart people think critically. They poke holes in things. And like everyone else, they fall in love with their idea, and then marshal their intellect to promote it over other possible solutions. It can feel uncomfortable to ask a “simple” question or put forward a nascent idea in a room full of brilliant people.
Organizations need to reconceptualize being “right” and “winning” not as destinations but as points on a continuum. The brilliant presentation that won the new client is never so good that it couldn’t be better. Curiosity is the mode that moves good to great and great to exceptional, and internal communications is well-situated to foster this sense of curiosity and open thinking.
Making it happen
Commit to highlighting the continuum of thinking and ideas, and always communicate that experimentation is part of the process. Make failure a critical pitstop on the path to success. For example, if you showcase your organization’s best work to employees, discuss the merits of the ideas that didn’t make it. Focus on the process; if an idea was perfectly on target and delivered great results, how did the team get to the idea? What other ideas did they have to consider and then put aside? How did those ideas ultimately lead to what ended up working?
The same concept extends to highlighting employees. If you’re running a feature on the highest-performing member of your sales team, dig in to why their performance is so strong. Is it because they’re leveraging the existing processes the best, or have they thought of something new? Either way, there’s something to explore. If they’re performing well by leveraging the current way of doing things, maybe there’s a different way that would be even better. And if they’ve discovered a new process or strategy, how did they arrive there? What gaps existed? And critically, do similar gaps exist anywhere else?
This leads to a deeper point. Highlighting the highest performers is great. After all, recognition and celebration are critical to creating a high-performing culture. But consider that by only highlighting people who perform well (and tying compensation to these narrow KPIs), you can disincentivize experimentation. Why not commit some internal communication bandwidth to the tinkerers, experimenters, and mad scientists in your organization? Not every experiment will lead to an improved way of working… but every improvement will be the result of someone trying something new – whether it’s your own employees or the employees of the consultancy you need to hire. Why outsource your creativity?
You can also choose to highlight improvers over performers. If someone has moved from low performance to high performance, that journey deserves to be examined and understood. These growth journeys often have unique features that can be used to elevate the performance of others. And the story is often more interesting, inspiring, and useful to the rest of your workforce than yet another interview with “the usual suspects” at the top of the performance ladder.
Next, commit to making your internal communication three-way. The delivery of the message should never be the end of the story. Internal communications that reveal change should ask for feedback and aim to get employees talking to each other.
Instead of asking “does anyone have any questions?” ask “this is where we’re at: how could we make it better?”
Instead of “does anyone have any ideas?” ask “what other ways could we do this?” These questions should have the feeling of a lively and sincere discussion – not a dusty and neglected suggestion box.
For internal communicators, this might mean sharing work or changes before they’re “ready.” It might mean shifting from the traditional mandate of “educate and inform” to “collaborate and improve.”
The desire to communicate “alignment” can also be a trap. Yes, stakeholders must all be aligned to a new change or a reinvented strategy. But that alignment should come out of a conversation where everyone contributes and is heard. People don’t start aligned; they get aligned after long conversations, deep analysis, and a healthy amount of compromise. The important point isn’t just that everyone is aligned – it’s why. Presumably because they agree on a single plan that is really, truly going to work. Alignment without rigor is conformity.
Finally, think about what leaders are saying and why. When a company is struggling, strong leaders usually acknowledge what’s been going wrong, then build a strategy and a set of priorities to pivot, and then seek to align the rest of the company around them. When a company is succeeding, leaders celebrate the success and then set higher, more ambitious targets. Here’s something no leader ever says, but they should:
Team, we made a lot of mistakes this year. We piloted a new client service model that cost us a lot of capital and didn’t deliver the results we were hoping for. We took a calculated risk to enter a new market, and it didn’t succeed. We made a lot of mistakes this year. And it was our best year ever.
Safety to succeed
When things are going well, most leaders don’t think to talk about failure, smart risk taking, and the calculated bets that just didn’t succeed. They don’t model not having all of the answers, and they rarely expound on the failures they’ve bounced back from. These topics are reserved for the “bad times.”
…But what message does that send to the audience?
To truly foster a psychologically safe culture, communicating stories of curiosity, risk-taking, and employee growth journeys needs to happen full time. Independent of the end result. In good times and bad.
Google’s Aristotle study: https://rework.withgoogle.com/guides/understanding-team-effectiveness/steps/introduction/