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Psychological Safety

InTouch - Newsletter - #90

Welcome to the ninetieth edition of “In-Touch”. As always, I would love to continue the conversation so please hit reply and let me know what you think.

Story of the Week: "Psychological Safety"

Once upon a time, there was a bakery named Sweet Success. It was renowned not only for its delicious pastries but also for its friendly staff. The owner, Mr. Baker – yes, that really was his name! – had a sister, Sarah, who worked there. While almost everyone liked Sarah, in truth she wasn't very good at her job in the kitchen and often made mistakes that affected the quality of the bakery’s products.

Emily, one of the company’s best bakers, was tasked with reviewing everyone's performance and she always made a point of giving honest feedback to iron out any problems and help the bakery maintain and even improve its reputation. So, when the time came to review and evaluate Sarah’s work, Emily naturally listed her colleague’s numerous issues and suggested ways in which she could overcome them and work more efficiently. However, when Mr. Baker read her report, he was unhappy with the fact that Emily had listed his sister’s negative aspects. Indeed, he told her that she should "choose her own battles," implying that she had something personal against Sarah.

“Psychological safety” is a term coined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. It refers to the shared belief that, in the workplace, people can express their ideas and concerns, ask questions and admit mistakes without fear of negative consequences. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to express their opinions, share innovative ideas and report errors all of which lead to increased productivity.

By suggesting that Emily should “choose her own battles,” Mr. Baker was undermining this principle and implicitly encouraging her and others to remain silent on issues that may be considered sensitive or controversial. He did not want to accept that ignoring Sarah's mistakes at the bakery, just because she was his sister, could – and, in this case, did – harm the bakery's overall performance.

Psychological safety means that everyone feels safe to speak up and share their thoughts, even if they are critical of the boss’s sister. If Emily could not give honest feedback, the bakery would be affected negatively because the very foundations on which it was built were not right.

Mr. Baker’s advice that Emily should “choose her own battles” might have kept the peace but, in reality, he was asking her to let the bakery fail. In business, everyone – from the owner to the newest employee – needs honest feedback to grow and improve. It is essential that employees feel safe to raise issues of concern. Anyone who feels that a colleague is not up to scratch or is endangering the business must feel able to speak out.

Fortunately for everyone at the bakery, Mr. Baker later thought twice about what Emily had told him and how he had responded to her assessment of Sarah. He understood the importance of putting the needs of the business above those of his sister and their family relationship, and of promoting psychological safety in his workplace, enabling everyone to voice an opinion freely, irrespective of whether it was right or wrong. He not only apologised to Emily but he also spoke to his sister who, recognizing her shortcomings, realized that she needed to improve and did so.

I’m happy to report that Sweet Success is, once again, living up to its name!

Words of Wisdom

"Without psychological safety, your team members waste valuable time and energy avoiding embarrassment or hiding their mistakes rather than focusing on reaching team goals." Eric Karpinski

A Question to Ponder, dear friend.

Have you ever had to decide whether to report negatively on a colleague with close links to your boss? What did you do and what happened?