Article (May-2021)


Work without Fear

Dr. Anupriyo Mallick

Designation : -   Associate Professor and Head HR and OB

Organization : -  Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning In Management (EIILM), Kolkata


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When we talk about diversity in the workplace, we usually think in terms of age and gender. But what about the important differences in personalities, communication styles and approaches? All too often, people don't speak up at work because it doesn't feel safe - and the consequences can be far reaching. In this article we look at the idea of 'psychological safety', and how we can create a framework that really honours the differences people bring to an organisation. Psychological Safety is a relatively new buzz word. Psychological safety, in a work capacity, is all about creating environments in which employees feel accepted and respected. There are ways to identify if your workplace is psychologically safe or unsafe. For example, in an unsafe environment it is likely that any mistake you make will be permanently held against you. Similarly, if you're in a meeting with people in senior positions and feel like you can't speak your mind for fear of being judged your environment is not psychologically safe.

Silence is invisible

Chances are you've had the experience at work of not asking a question you really wanted to. Maybe you had an idea to suggest but stayed quiet instead. No matter where you are in your organisation's hierarchy, research shows that such moments of silence are painfully common. Studies report that people frequently hold back - even when they believe what they have to say could be important for the organisation, the customer, or themselves. From an HR perspective the losses from this silence are as large as they are invisible. Those who fail to speak up often regret this and wish for more fulfilment in their jobs. Because silence is invisible problems go unreported, improvement opportunities are missed, and occasionally tragic failures occur that could have been avoided.

Employee engagement (defined as the extent to which an employee feels passionate about the job and committed to the organisation) is seen as an index of willingness to put discretionary effort into one's work. Recent studies find that psychological safety, which includes speaking up, predicts worker engagement. In a study of 170 research scientists working in six Irish research centres, researchers showed that psychological safety was fostered by trust in top management and in turn led to greater work engagement. Additionally, researchers studied Turkish immigrants employed in Germany and showed that psychological safety promoted work engagement, mental health, and lower turnover. The positive effects of psychological safety were greater for the immigrants than for the German employees in the same company. For those who start out feeling more vulnerable, the benefits of psychological safety are even greater it seems.

One place where worker engagement matters greatly is healthcare delivery. Frontline staff confront high-stress and emotionally-laden work with life and death consequences. Disengaged employees who remain silent create safety risks and higher staff turnover. Turnover means higher recruiting and training costs as well as a higher percentage of less-experienced workers. Experts' concerns about staff turnover thus have given rise to interest in improving the healthcare work environment as a strategy for employee retention. In one recent study a survey of clinical staff at a large metropolitan hospital found that psychological safety was related both to commitment to the organisation and to patient safety.

Managers when both psychological safety and performance standards are low (lower left in the above figure); the workplace becomes a kind of 'apathy zone'. People show up at work but their hearts and minds are elsewhere. They choose self-protective silence over exertion.

Next, when performance standards are high but psychological safety is low - a situation far too common in today's workplace - employees are anxious about speaking up, and both work quality and workplace safety suffer from the pervasive invisible silence. Managers in these organisations have unfortunately confused setting high standards with good management.

High standards in a context where there is uncertainty or interdependence (or both) combined with a lack of psychological safety comprise a recipe for suboptimal performance. Sometimes it's a recipe for disaster. This is called the 'anxiety zone'. This is not anxiety about being able to accomplish a demanding goal or about the competitive business environment - but interpersonal anxiety that often manifests in silence.

Finally, when standards and psychological safety are both high (upper right in the figure) this is called the 'learning zone'. If the work is uncertain, interdependent, or both this is also the high-performance zone. Here people no longer feel bound by invisible silence. They speak up to question, voice concerns, report mistakes and suggest new ideas. Only by collaborating and learning from each other can we get the complex innovative work done that is necessary today.

Managers who understand the deeply unsatisfying experience of being unable to share a question or an idea because of taken-for-granted rules at work are on their way to recognising their organisation's speaking-up problem. By 'seeing' the invisible silence in your workplace you can begin to elicit the employee engagement, worker confidence, meaningful conversations, and valuable reports that contribute to a successful, fearless organisation.

Fig. - A survey measure of psychological safety -source- Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 20

Maintaining psychological safety is an important factor for optimizing our organisational performance.

Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization (2019), defines psychological safety as: "The belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking". She further elaborates that, “…the concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions or concerns.”

When we experience an attack to our psychological safety our brain is triggered into a stress response. This stress response is important to understand in order to expand our awareness of mental wellbeing and its impact on business/companies.

Our brain is designed to see patterns and map these patterns in our mind, which helps us create blueprints that are meant to keep us safe. Our brain's drive for safety is so important that it dedicates more neural pathways and connections to detect and manage threats than it does for rewards. Therefore, unless you feel safe, it is very difficult to focus or enjoy anything. The brain is an efficient machine that is great at conserving energy, especially in times of stress. When we become stressed our brain dedicates energy to manage the threat (real or perceived) which pulls energy away from areas in our brain responsible for thinking rationally, creativity, decision-making, self-control, and attention focus. Thus, engaging these areas in times of stress will require more energy and effort, which is taxing on the brain. So, we can see then how fear is not an effective motivator at work, and the need for psychological safety is necessary for increased learning, creativity, social risk taking and healthy group culture. Through numerous research studies on organisations, wellbeing and psychological safety a few things are certain :

  • Belonging and social acceptance is a primal drive for people, and when we experience rejection it not only affects areas of our brain that fire signals that look like actual physical pain, but it sends us into the stress response due to real or perceived threat.
  • Psychological safety states that for people to take the social and psychological risks of speaking up they need to feel safe to do so.
  •  Achieving psychological safety is not just due to the right combination of personalities, being nice, or something that just happens.

Psychological safety is something that must be cultivated through leadership. By creating a work environment that holds high performance standards and high psychological safety employees are challenged appropriately while also being encouraged to collaborate, learn from each other, and get complex work completed through candour and openness. While psychological safety helps spur this learning and engagement process, it is held into place with standard seeing which is orchestrated through ongoing inspiration and coaching.

Dr. Anupriyo Mallick - Associate Professor and Head HR and OB, Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning In Management (EIILM), Kolkata

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