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Psychological safety can’t be left to HR, it’s on everyone

Article by Terry Brown, Director of Engineering - Healx

Steve Jobs once said “We don’t hire clever people and then tell them what to do. We hire clever people and they tell us what to do.”

That quote perfectly encapsulates the importance of autonomy at work. But it also says a lot about psychological safety

Widely defined as a shared belief that you will not be embarrassed, rejected or punished by your colleagues for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, psychological safety in the workplace is the condition that allows people to bring their whole selves to any workplace challenge. It enables new joiners to come in and show a different way of doing things (often the reason you hired them, don’t forget) and it’s also the safety net people need around them to report errors, concerns, or questions. In short, it’s an essential attribute of any healthy, high performing team.

The challenge with start-ups and scale-ups is that they often rush to solve their commercial and market needs, meaning the underlying culture of the organisation can be overlooked, and psychological safety can become an afterthought. Ironically, when this happens, companies are often inadvertently stifling innovation and growth.

Today, however, there is significant evidence that businesses are placing a strong focus on creating more inclusive workplaces, and that evidence suggests that this is not only the right human thing to do, but also generates better outcomes for business. Creating environments where all are welcome and expected is just the first step, though, and it perhaps doesn’t solve the other three stages of psychological safety; that is, learner safety, contributor safety, and challenger safety. Teams need the right environment and culture so that they can ask questions, contribute their own ideas, and challenge the status quo – and, in so doing, push companies forward to bigger and better things.

It is common to think of our underlying culture as a responsibility of HR or our People team, though the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Organisational culture is a group level phenomena – that is, your culture is the behaviours that are lived and observed at the team level within your organisation, be that the role managers play in amplifying a psychologically safe environment, or the actions individual team members take with each other.

Are you building high performing teams?
Many companies under-invest on their organisational culture, and instead focus heavily on delivery, sometimes at all costs. The impact of this is huge: one study showed that companies that focused on enhancing culture enjoyed a 756% net income growth and 901% stock price growth over an 11 year period compared to those that didn’t. Not investing in your underlying culture, and failing to focus on building psychologically safe environments, is literally leaving money on the table and putting you at a competitive disadvantage to companies who are.

There are many ways to build psychological safety in the workplace, but Amy Edmondson,  Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, gives us a great starting point here.

Firstly, frame your challenges as learning problems, not execution problems. We work in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world of knowledge work, and we haven’t been here before. That is, we haven’t done this exact work in this exact way. Errors are inevitable, and if we frame the work as something we’re willing to learn from, rather than a thing to be done, we will be so much more effective.

Secondly, model fallibility yourself. None of us are error-free, and acknowledging that, especially as a manager, can go a long way to creating an environment where teams feel comfortable to do the same. Simply saying “I’m not sure I have the answer here, could we explore this together?” goes a huge way to bringing voices to the table.

Finally, model curiosity. Ask lots of questions and seek to understand. This creates a necessity for people to speak up, and in doing so, especially when modelling the other two steps, will maximise our outcomes. 

Remember that you, as a leader, have positional power. If you are a founder, or a manager, do not forget this important observation from Edmondson’s research: “The most important influence on Psychological Safety is the nearest manager, supervisor, or boss.” There are so many steps you can take as a leader to create the environment that amplifies psychological safety, and get to those high performing cultures that we all aspire to. One of the most impactful ways to do that is to actually model the behaviours needed in psychological safety yourself, and praise people when they do speak up, raise ideas or challenge.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
This famous Peter Drucker quote has been proven true across many studies, and the importance of psychological safety is often laid bare when looking at what your company might miss without it. 

For us at Healx, working to find treatments for rare diseases using AI, we could be missing out on a voice that could help us find the next big breakthrough for patients living with a debilitating rare disease. Culture then, and psychological safety, are a hugely important investment for us – perhaps as important as the actual technology we employ. 

Solving for the human challenges within an organisation is significantly harder than solving for the technical challenges. But if it isn’t focused on and addressed as a core concern – if human issues are seen as only HR problems – you are never going to be as effective as you could be as a company and you risk diminishing outcomes for those you exist to serve

    Terry Brown is Director of Engineering at Healx with a passion for people and over 25 years of experience. He leads platform and software engineering teams, and is driven to create cloud technologies that automate processes and maximise developer experience and unlocking team members' real value add. His business interests are Psychological Safety, Org Design and Culture, DEI, and Effective Management and Leadership.

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