Enabling open discussions through psychological safety sounds complex….is it? In this article we discuss what it is and how it can be applied to enable better boardroom discussions.
Complex? Not really!
As a concept, psychological safety has been around for some time now, but – like many things – it has come to wider prominence as a result of the pandemic and the way working lives have changed for so many over the last 12-14 months.
At IDT, we’ve touched on the subject a number of times in our knowledge building sessions, on building effective agendas and how to run good board-level meetings. But, following on from the opportunity I was given by a former colleague at John Lewis to speak at an online mental health awareness event she had organised, we thought we’d explore the subject in a little more depth.
Explain it simply, please!
In my time at John Lewis – and since – I’ve undertaken a lot of facilitation. Sometimes of small meetings, but also bigger events with elected bodies of employee representatives and senior directors. One of the common threads running through much of my facilitation was thinking about how to deal with power differentials and ensure all participants, whatever their status, felt they could contribute, for their views to be respected and responded to without recrimination.
Only when (with time on my hands during the first lockdown) I started reading more on facilitation did I realise that my approach had been driven by a desire to create a psychologically safe environment for people to operate in.
If you have 10-15 minutes to spare, there is an excellent Tedx Talk by Amy Edmondson on the subject in which she describes psychological safety as:
“A belief that one will not be punished or penalised for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns – or acknowledging mistakes.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8)
The journalist Matthew Syed also wrote a series of articles in The Sunday Times last year in which he recognised the importance of the subject given the rapid emergence of home working in response to the Covid-induced lockdown. His definition was:
“A place where people aren’t fearful to offer opinions divergent from their leader.”
It couldn’t be simpler, could it? And the common sense is immediate and compelling. Create an environment where people can be open with their colleagues and those more senior to them. Encourage them to participate honestly, bringing their own opinions and experience to the party, safe in the knowledge it will be considered respectfully by all.
Why does it matter?
It fulfils basic human needs, as the above explanations make plain. It allows participants to be at their best, to be authentic because people know they’re not about to get shot down in the event of making a mistake. It allows meetings to be places where challenge is not only welcomed but expected. Mistakes are accepted without fear of recrimination, are learnt from, seen as part of the creative or problem-solving process. Critically, it helps reduce power differentials, building confidence in genuine collaboration. And, as Matthew Syed points out, psychological safety has come to be accepted as a cornerstone of high performing teams.
So, what happens if you don’t have it?
Like most good things, psychological safety takes time and effort to build but can be destroyed quickly. If people are experiencing pressure to get things done at speed, the potential to become directive or impatient with colleagues can easily arise.
Meetings which move into blame and criticism reliably escalate into conflict, promoting defensiveness, an enemy to good outcomes. Moreover, in the predominantly online world, which we have come to accept as a norm, it risks heightening a sense of alienation or isolation – and the clues to these feelings are much harder to pick up when we are not physically present.
Finally, its absence will destroy morale and, with it, productivity. With this comes the threat to talent retention. Glassdoor conducted a survey in 2020 which showed workplace culture and the quality of leadership to be the two highest factors for talent retention. In comparison, pay and benefits trailed in a lowly sixth.
How do I go about building psychological safety?
As a leader, it requires you to show humility and a recognition of your own fallibility. How will others feel able to open up and acknowledge their mistakes, and learn from them, if you don’t demonstrate the same commitment? Model curiosity, be open, ask lots of questions and – critically – listen with genuine intent. Making statements as simple as:
“I may miss something.”
“I need to hear from you.”
“I come to these meetings because I learn things I wasn’t aware of”
all build the belief that you’re committed to fostering an open and inclusive learning environment. Also, ask for solutions rather than offering them. Doing that, and asking for feedback, is disarming, further reducing power differentials.
How many times have you been to meetings where every department in the business has expressed a need to be there? If you’re leading the meeting or facilitating it, satisfy yourself that only those who really need to be there get an invite – an army of hangers-on just makes meaningful participation impossible. That goes for online or physical meetings, but if you are running online meetings, they work best in small groups. Aim for 6-8. This, also, subtly, places an onus on people to contribute. Further, re-think big presentations – place the emphasis on meetings being participatory rather than having participants in ‘receiving mode.’
Lastly, give some thought to how long meetings need to be. In the online space, especially, there’s an intensity to meetings because we tend not to have the small talk and preamble that starts a physical meeting. Does it really need to be more than hour long? And if it does, build in a decent break. There is also the tendency to go from one Zoom/Teams/Google call to the next without a break. Rather than being an hour long, can your organisation schedule meetings for 50 minutes so people have a gap, avoiding meetings running “edge to edge”? Small things, perhaps, but they help your people to be at their best more of the time.
Some final observations….
Critically, your approach must be consistent, not just in certain meetings, and not even just in meetings; psychological safety needs to be modelled through an organisation and top-down leadership is critical. This needs to feel authentic to employees.
Beware the Hippo
Hippo stands for the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” Almost every meeting has one. Be ever mindful of them! Their mere presence can stop ideas from forming as contributors become deferential, even intimidated. Everyone tends to coalesce around their view, which many a Hippo is only too happy to give at the outset of any discussion. Working with them in advance of meetings can pay real dividends. Encourage them to speak last, or even not at all; seeing the Hippo reflect and remain silent can be incredibly powerful!
Beware as well that the Hippo may be you, and your frustrations with attending ineffective meetings may be as a direct result of your unconscious directorial leadership. If it is, allow others to express their views first, welcome differing views and aim to learn from others with different viewpoints.
IDT consultants’ observations
Discussing this in our most recent knowledge-sharing session, we all agreed that – in many senses – the content shared on psychological safety wasn’t in any way revelatory. But we all remarked on environments we had worked in where it was noticeable by its absence.
One of my colleagues remarked about how easy it can be to slip back from good intentions without a determination and consistency of application. They cited a large financial organisation which had stated very clearly to employees its intent to improve workplace culture, only for the measures introduced to gradually fall by the wayside as time passed and day-to-day priorities and pressures drove behaviours. Leadership example is critical, modelling the expected behaviours and demanding it of those who report to them, and on down through the organisation.
We all recognised that, as Non-Executive Directors and Independent Trustees, we have the opportunity to act as role models and influence behaviour as a result, especially where we chair board meetings.
In conclusion, we spoke briefly about the excellent Matthew Syed once more. His book, “Black Box Thinking” clearly demonstrates what happens when one industry expects to actively learns from its mistakes (the passenger airline business) and when one suffers under a culture of fear and seeks, on occasion, to hide away from its mistakes (hospitals in the context of malpractice and negligence cases). The figures are as mind-boggling as they are sobering.
Ian Hiscock is a consultant with Independent Directors & Trustees Ltd., an Independent Trustee for a number of employee-owned businesses, and an accredited member of the Association of Facilitators.
His talk on psychological safety as part of the ‘You Are Not Alone’ online conference can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WV027ydvxhU&t=10s