Is it Safe to Speak Up? Five Ways Leaders Can Build Psychological Safety

Psych safety

I have a vivid memory from early in my career. I spoke up during a meeting, fully expecting my colleagues to chime in. The leaders were there, and we finally had the opportunity to ask questions and raise some concerns that were impeding our progress. I naively stepped in, expecting others would speak up too, but I was dead wrong. They stayed silent and I felt exposed. Awkward! 

The next day, one of the leaders asked if I could ‘step into her office’ (those dreaded words) where the other leader was waiting. Already rattled by the ominous invitation, I was reprimanded for complaining and being disruptive. That day I learned that to protect myself and my job, I needed to keep my mouth shut around those leaders.  

This old memory came flooding back as I was reading the book The Fearless Organization by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson who coined the term Psychological Safety. Her book makes the case that we need psychological safety for learning, innovation, growth, and engagement. I couldn’t put the book down.   

Edmondson says Psychological Safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. More broadly, she defines is at a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. People are confident that they can speak up without being humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They can ask questions when they are unsure and can share concerns and admit mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.  

As humans, we are wired to protect ourselves. Beyond keeping our jobs, we want to be accepted and don’t want to be perceived as wrong, stupid, weak, or difficult. We don’t want to embarrass anyone, be reprimanded, unjustly labeled, get a negative reaction, damage a relationship or be unliked. The list is long.  So, we err on this side of caution and stay quiet even if that means holding back important but bad news or data, innovative ideas, useful observations, and insightful questions. And we don’t ask for the help we need because of how that might be interpreted.  

As Edmondson says, “Silence is instinctive and safe. It offers self protection benefits that are immediate and certain.  No one was ever fired for silence.”   

High Price to Pay 

Speaking up can be fraught with risk, especially if your organization hasn’t laid the groundwork to make it psychologically safe. The cost of people not speaking up because they didn’t feel safe to do so is astronomically high, particularly in high-stake situations where errors can be life and death.

In today’s uncertain, knowledge-based environment where the success of teams requires them to collaborate, be creative and innovative, and achieve results together, not feeling safe to speak up is detrimental. If people can’t respectfully challenge, disagree or offer a different perspective in pursuit of the better solution, then progress isn’t available.     

It’s not that we don’t want to speak up. It’s we feel we can’t. In his newest book The Power of Regret author Daniel Pink shares that a frequent sentiment of regret is people’s wish that they had spoken up more.  He says, “People want to have careers and workplaces where they feel safe enough to do something, to say what they think, to take a chance. I think [there’s] a big lesson for companies in that.” 

The Leaders Role in Setting the Stage  

How safe is it for your team to speak up? Unless we’ve been intentional about creating a psychologically safe environment, which is our responsibility as leaders, how would we know?  

For starters, we can pay attention to the indicators. Not hearing bad news from your team? Not making traction or getting results? Wondering if team members are engaged? Tired of initiating all the ideas? Feeling team members don’t speak up even when there’s the opportunity to do so?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, the invitation is to roll back to trust…and then go deeper.   

We know positive relationships help individuals and the team thrive. We also know that those relationships must be built on a foundation of trust. Without that foundation, we can’t achieve results. But before we can get to trust, we need to set the stage with psychological safety. It underpins trust. If people don’t feel safe to speak up or ask for help, trust can’t be built. 

Here’s five ways leaders can establish and strengthen psychological safety for their teams:  

 

  1. Establish the Commitment: When it comes to increasing psychological safety on the team, invite each team member to share what they need from the team to make their fullest and best contribution. Then as a team, explore how you can turn those needs into simple, specific behavioural commitments that you can check in on from meeting-to-meeting.    
  2. Bring a Coach Mindset: The three elements of a coach mindset are: 1) be curious, 2) ask powerful questions, and 3) listen. A coach mindset is in service of others and seeks to learn and understand. By being curious, we can’t be judgmental. By asking powerful open questions that start with “what” and “how”, we invite dialogue. And by listening, staying silent and giving people our attention, we create a safe space to hear what others have to contribute.    
  3. Be aware of your reactions: Whether you know it or not, as a leader you are in the spotlight. People are watching your every move, what you say, how you react, how you interact with others, and they take their cues from you, for better or worse.  How you react to bad news or failure, accept new ideas, talk about others, or deal with conflict will determine if people feel safe, without any words being exchanged. Check out our recent blog on Leader as Role Model 
  4. Hold Back: It’s us who should hold back, not the team. Because of our influence as leaders, we need to be aware of the halo effect of that influence. It goes like this…if you always share your idea first, it will shape and change the answers of the people to follow. Brene Brown’s wisdom around this is to put a question out there and have everyone in the room write down their thoughts on a sticky note and turn it over at the same time. This approach generates curiosity and conversation. And it can be fun! 
  5. Show Appreciation: Given what we know about why people don’t speak up, when someone does have the courage to wade into interpersonal risk, it’s important to recognize that. Thank them, acknowledge their bravery, take in what they are saying, and use it to fuel further conversation and understanding.  This is a simple but important matter of rewarding the behaviours we want to encourage. 

Our role as leaders is to unlock the potential in others and motivate people to do their very best work by providing a psychologically safe workplace.  To create a healthy environment, the most important thing a leader can do is to set the tone, clarify the stakes (here’s why we need to speak up), and set the right conditions to encourage people to speak up rather than hold back.   

When was the last time you held back an idea or observation because you weren’t sure how it would land? What caused you to hold back? 

How easy is it for you to hold back and listen vs lead the conversation? 

What’s one thing you can do this week to establish psychological safety within your team?  


 
 

 

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