fearless learning cultureDon’t want to look ignorant? Don’t ask questions. Don’t want to look incompetent? Don’t admit to mistakes or weaknesses. Don’t want to be called disruptive? Don’t make suggestions.
In many organizational cultures, we hear the sound of silence. That’s not just dangerous for physical safety like in hospitals, air travel or mines. It’s dumbing and slowing down all organizations where it happens. We miss out on learning, innovating, improving, collaborating, and high performance. The foundation of a positive, productive culture is psychological safety.

For all leaders, consultants and team members wanting to make a difference at work: read Amy Edmonson’s book The Fearless Organization. It brings the research, the business case and the practices on how to develop more psychological safety.

As Edmonson explains: Growth in the Industrial Revolution was driven by standardization, but today it’s driven by ideas and ingenuity. People must bring their brains to work and collaborate to solve problems and accomplish work that’s perpetually changing. We spend 50% more time collaborating than 20 years ago – so, we must speak up at work.

The direct reward of silence

In a psychologically safe workplace people are not hindered by fear to share concerns, questions, mistakes or half-formed ideas. There’s no interpersonal risk. The safer the team, the quicker mistakes are reported so that corrective action can be taken. It’s a crucial source of value creation in a complex, changing environment. In a fast-changing, volatile world, employee’s observations, questions, ideas and concerns can provide vital information about what’s going on

However, it’s easier said than done as people are inclined to lower the risk of rejection or scorn. Silence often wins the voice-silence calculation that we make:

  • When I speak up, the organization benefits after some delay but that’s not guaranteed.
  • When I remain silent, I benefit immediately and that’s certain. No one will judge me as ignorant, incompetent or disruptive.

Especially in cultures of fear, with a strong hierarchy, silence prevails. Edmonson shows the failures of VolksWagen’s “dieselgate”, Wells Fargo, and Nokia that ran on this same script. The script is: set unreachable target goals, in a command-and-control hierarchy that motivates by fear, and people are afraid to lose their jobs if they fail. In such a culture of fear, when pressed for a solution and “cannot” is not an answer, people come up with creative solutions.
The same goes for accidents as NASA’s space shuttle Colmubia that crashed, or the collision of two Boeings on Tenerife. Silence is dangerous for people and organizations.

Fortunately, there are great companies that want to hear people’s voices and cultivate psychological safety. Examples are Pixar Animation Studios, Bridgewater Associates, Eileen Fisher, Google X and Barry-Wehmiller.

The super rewards of voice

Without the freedom to fail people will repeat what has been good enough in the past. But if you want to develop a positive culture with high performance, if you want people to play to win – then you need psychological safety to benefit from the collective intelligence in the organization.

Leaders play a crucial task in this, but anyone can help create psychological safety. Edmonson appeals to everyone’s personal agency and responsibility – just like I do with culture. How are you contributing and, thus, influencing the people around you?
Asking an open, honest, good question and listening well to the answers – or actively finding the dissenting voice – the other point of view – might make a difference.

It works best if leaders go first. Leaders must set direction, invite relevant input and create conditions for learning and excellence. Those inputs and conditions center around a positive culture that’s rooted in psychological safety.

What can leaders do? First, help people adopt a growth mindset as Carol Dweck indicated. It means that people can grow and learn – they are not “fixed”. Next, frame the safety: set expectations about failure, uncertainty and interdependency to clarify the need for voice. Help people see how their work impacts others, the interdependency and non-linearity of today’s world. Just explain that you expect failures and issues in complex systems like organizations and markets. Failures are a feature of learning. It’s normal – so let’s learn from them.
Also explain the purpose – we must learn to adapt and be agile. Or, we must learn to enhance worker safety in our plant, for our patients, and so on.

For speaking up to become routine, psychological safety must be institutionalized. How do you invite people to do so? What structures and policies do you have in place? More importantly, how do you make it “normal” in the culture that these structures and policies are used (instead of being paper tigers).
Embody this as a leader or team member. Ask better and more questions, listen better. Organize focus groups and learning structures. Install Blameless Reporting or Lessons Learned sessions.
Always demonstrate situational humility – you can’t know and control everything – and that’s okay!

When you encounter failures, respond. Learn from it, fix it – and if it’s a “simple” preventable error, double down on prevention. A productive response is concerned with future impact.
Always express appreciation for those who speak up and share errors and concerns. Actively invite dissenters. We can all learn so much more from different viewpoints and valuable intel.

Safety takes off the brakes, but it’s not the fuel that powers the car. The other part needed is: set high standards and enable and inspire people to reach them. Let’s create the conditions for learning and excellence. People thrive when they learn, and so do organizations. Need more cases and examples? Read Edmonson’s book!

When you play not to lose, you’re likely to succeed. You miss opportunities to grow, to innovate, to experience a deep sense of fulfillment – but that’s not visible. Are you playing to win? Learning and failing in the process?
Do you hear the sound of silence? How do you make it safe for yourself and others? To speak up or ask a question?

© Marcella Bremer, 2021. All rights reserved.

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