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From Employee Silence To Employee Voice - Psychological Safety At Work

September 08, 2022   ·  

Decades of research into why employees fail to speak up at work has produced consistent results. Silence in hierarchies is instinctive and safe. Put simply, for most people at work, safe is better than sorry.

It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case. None of us wants to be labelled as ignorant, so we’ll avoid asking questions. We don’t like to be considered incompetent, so we’re reluctant to ask for help or admit a mistake. Being considered negative is equally unappealing, so we won’t challenge the status quo. And, we won’t offer our guidance or advice to our colleagues unless explicitly asked because who wants to be the team know-it-all? 

Silence is the norm because the alternatives are risky, but imagine how your company might function if your employees felt able to share what they felt, thought, experienced at work. The rewards for companies that can unlock the powerful voices of their employees are potentially huge.

What we’re talking about here is creating psychologically safe environments, where “people feel able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”, as William Kahn described it.

Psychological safety was the thing that Google’s famous Project Aristotle concluded to be the most important characteristic of “what makes a team effective at Google?” - You can read the complete list and details of Project Aristotle here → re:Work.

Timothy R. Clark has contributed to psychological safety with the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety framework. He defines psychological safety as "a condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised, or punished in some way." (Clark, 2020)

Thinking back to the earlier parts of my career, it’s clear in my mind how the make-up of any team influenced how I would behave and what I contributed.   My behaviour will have affected others’ ability to speak up or contribute fully. In fact, it almost certainly continues to influence how others behave and how they feel too.   

Put simply, circumstances play a significant role in determining which stage of Clark’s model we might describe ourselves as being in at any time. 

Je Shoots on Unsplash

The implication is that in every company, there are likely to be safe places - where people will share ideas, in the knowledge that they’ll be well-received (regardless of what they result in) - and there will be places where people will be reluctant to share the same idea for fear of appearing critical and causing an adverse reaction from sensitive superiors.  

When it comes to sharing or highlighting risks or concerns (about aspects of work or mental health), there will likely be fewer perceived safe places - until very recently there have almost always been consequences.  It will take time for people to forget that.

Psychological safety is fragile, subjective, highly dynamic and, like most other things in the workplace, context-sensitive. 

Achieving it is one challenge (a mighty big one); sustaining it is another altogether. There are so many moving parts in organisations that the conditions required for safety will constantly be under threat by any change to the hierarchy, to the team dynamic, perhaps even to the urgency of the latest strategic imperative.

It’s a complex challenge but one that is almost certainly worth the effort.  It might also be precisely the sort of challenge that technology can give you a head start.

Jon Tyson on UnsplashNick Fewings on Unsplash

New applications for our unique listening platform have emerged as we’ve developed, and one such application is providing a foundation for psychological safety.  More than that, it’s not just a foundation; it moves your company directly to stages 3 and 4 in Dr Tim’s model.

Our daily check-in routine encourages everyone to share how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them - primarily to understand more about emotional wellbeing and day-to-day experience, but, over time, we’ve learned it does so much more.

This daily check-in process is anonymous and entirely without constraint or direction, which means people can write and share anything they choose. It’s this absence of constraint along with anonymity that presents the opportunity to make significant leaps in psychological safety. 

There’s a wonderful freedom that communicating without status offers - since there are no avatars, visible profiles or personas, there’s no risk in speaking the truth and no benefit in lying. Armed with newfound technologically enabled safety, we can focus on improving how we describe what’s not working to encourage and support action, rather than just problem identification or venting.  And, importantly, we can learn how to listen better and respond appropriately - “I’ve heard you, thank you for sharing” is often enough when it’s accompanied by the appropriate action in the background.

It’s vital that we encourage (and enable) the people in our businesses to share the things that only they can tell us, the things that are working well and those that are harming the group, or that perhaps might harm the business in the future if we don’t act now.  

That encouragement could be in the form of a tool like Harkn, where your people can share without judgement and fear.  

All you need to do is listen.

David Bellamy
David Bellamy

Founder and CEO, Connect with David on LinkedIn

Healthy companiesCultureHappiness at workPositivityEmotional intelligenceWellbeing

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