Safe to speak up?

How easy is it to speak up in your organisation?

One of the common issues I come across with organisations is a lack of communication, silo working or self-protection. People don’t feel able to speak up.

Usually this shows up in the following ways:

  1. There is a lack of information flowing backwards and forwards, which means that poor decisions are made (eg. I didn’t know you needed it by 1st March)
  2. The quality of the information is not nuanced when it comes and doesn’t necessarily answer the unspoken questions. (eg. What do you mean the new design doesn’t fit the machines?)
  3. We only hear about the easy things to fix (see how good I am) or the really big problems (Help!)
  4. We avoid difficult conversations, challenging people or performance or systems (I’ll leave that for someone else to deal with)
  5. Blame becomes common, people talk behind each others’ backs and silos appear (eg it’s all sales’ fault)

The sense is that people aren’t talking freely, openly and honestly. They question is, why not? People often don’t speak up because they fear reprisal and they are unwilling to take the interpersonal risk.

I remember a boss of mine many years back, who hated to be questioned. If you disagreed with him then you would be in his bad books and picked on, shouted at and have your work pulled apart for the next couple of weeks (until someone else gained his attention).

Did many of us come up with new ideas or challenge his way of doing things? No, not often. We didn’t feel psychologically safe to.

Now this is all very well when dealing with administrative detail. Annoying, but not life threatening. But consider the example of a nurse in an operating theatre questioning the medication requested by the surgeon. The first time she did it, he shouted at her and made her feel small, stupid. Did she raise her concerns a second time?? No. The outcome was not great.

Psychological Safety

This has become known as a lack of psychological safety, created by a lack of trust, a sense that people don’t really care about you or what you have to say.

‘Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’ Amy Edmondson

When there is low psychological safety, speaking up is a threat, so we clam up. Low psychological safety leads to less information being shared, poor performance, increased risk, decreased quality, increased fear, fewer ideas, reporting driven underground. Suddenly your site safety and productivity is at risk.

This often happens accidentally. We don’t mean to come to work to not care, or make things worse, but often accidentally that is what happens. Have you ever heard this response to an idea being put forward?

‘Yes of course, we tried that two years ago. Can you come up with anything better?’

This response may accidentally humiliate someone for their idea. If they have been nervous about putting an idea forward, getting this response may mean they never do it again.

Low psychological safety in an organisation indicates low trust; trust between individuals, teams and with the organisation as a whole. We essentially don’t believe that the organisation has our best interests at heart. If we have low trust between people, it means the relationships are poor. We are not demonstrating our care and value for the other.

How do you improve Psychological Safety?

This is why our Speak Up? learning programme to improve psychological safety focus on demonstrating care, improving relationships and ultimately building trust.

By demonstrating care, developing relationships and deepening interpersonal connections we will build trust, improve psychological safety, and thus improve the flow of information.

  1. Instead of transactional information, we begin to hear the nuance, the personal, the pressures and the influence. We begin to really know one another and what makes us tick.
  2. We start to hear about all the issues that are arising, not just the success stories or the major issues. This means our strategic awareness and planning improves.
  3. We’ll talk about the tricky stuff regularly, challenging and airing concerns to find innovative solutions together
  4. We start to assume positive intent, building on what is good and focusing on strengths.

Now that is a place I would like to work. How about you?

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