Helping your people to use their voice and speak up

Helping your people to use their voice and speak up

A recent event hosted by Becky Mackarel, Principal, Financial and Professional Services, and Adam Gates, Partner and Head of the Insurance Practice, explored how to create a culture of Psychological Safety at work.

Our webinar, the latest in a series of events on what makes a sustainable organisation, centred on a presentation by Tracey Groves, CEO of Intelligent Ethics and Partner at global advisory firm StoneTurn. Tracey is an expert advisor to leaders on governance, sustainability, corporate ethics, change and belonging, who earlier this year was named to the Top Consultants 2022 list by Consulting Magazine for Excellence in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

Although Psychological Safety is undoubtedly rising up the boardroom agenda as a critical area of focus to design a desirable culture, there are still some myths around what it means, why it matters and how it can be fostered in the workplace. We explored these key points in the context of creating a workplace where everyone can prosper and fulfil their full potential.

To get everyone thinking about what Psychological Safety really is, Tracey conducted a quick straw poll among our participants, offering a choice of four definitions as to its true meaning:  A) we can have difficult conversations at work; B) that we are always nice to one another and don’t disagree; C) we can readily admit when we make a mistake; D) it’s about how safe a person feels.

D proved the most popular answer, and there was also noticeable support for A and C. It was heartening that participants spurned option B, because as Tracey was quick to point out a psychologically safe environment is one in which it is fine to disagree. Indeed, it is expected and she considers a healthy organisation to be a “noisy” one in which people are comfortable swapping ideas, challenging the status quo and pushing boundaries, so long as their behaviour aligns with corporate values.

A and C were also both correct answers. Employees should feel free to be open and honest in a constructive manner without fear of retribution or retaliation as this overcomes stifling groupthink and helps promote progress, creativity and innovation. While readiness to admit mistakes (and there being no shame in making them) encourages a positive learning environment.

But what of D, the most popular choice? Is Psychological Safety about how safe a person feels? No, said Tracey. It’s more than that. It’s about how safe we all feel. This is a very important distinction because Psychological Safety is a collective experience, a systemic shared belief. If one person does not feel psychologically safe, then no-one does.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, the guru on Psychological Safety, defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In other words, you’re confident that the people you work with have your back and that it’s all right, indeed encouraged, to challenge someone more senior or experienced if you go about it in the right way. Incidentally, if you have a few spare minutes Professor Edmondson’s insightful TED talk on the subject is excellent viewing.  

In the above, we have already partly answered why Psychological Safety matters. However, it’s no exaggeration to say it can make or break a workplace. A culture where people feel safe to use their voice and speak up is a healthy one. Whereas environments in which people’s ideas are dismissed or not heard are both bad for business and for employee mental health. An academic study into social exclusion, with the catchy title Does Rejection Hurt? used neuroimaging to find that rejection and violation of dignity caused the same area of people’s brains to light up, called social pain, as when they experienced physical pain. A sobering thought – and further evidence of the importance of Psychological Safety as a must-have, not a nice-to-have.

Tracey finished her presentation by outlining “four small steps to create big changes”. If you’d like to find out more about these, or indeed about interim executives with the skills to foster Psychological Safety within your organisation, please do get in touch.  


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