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Psychological safety in a speak-up culture

Fearless organizations embrace diversity of thought

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Women speaker Fearlessness. It’s the singular trait that defines every superhero.

But fearlessness is not reserved for those jumping off tall buildings or battling evil villains. It’s fundamental to every business organization seeking to achieve high performance.

Fearless organizations are those that build capabilities to take risks and provide psychological safety for their employees. Building a psychologically safe work environment is especially critical for women in order to embrace interpersonal risk-taking. Women need to feel they are able to speak up and offer up their relevant ideas, questions or concerns without being ignored or shut down. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able to be honest, transparent and candid.

Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School and author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth,” first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999. Since then, she’s noted that companies with a trusting workplace perform better when creating a culture of psychological safety, something that’s increasingly important in a modern economy. As she noted in a Harvard Business Review podcast: “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.”

Because psychological safety has to do with aspects of human nature, it’s difficult to develop and maintain. “It’s an instinct to want to look good in front of others,” she explained. “It’s an instinct to divert blame. It’s an instinct to agree with your boss. And hierarchies are places where these instincts are even more exaggerated.”

While today’s organizations indicate they are committed to promoting not only gender diversity and diversity of thought, recent research suggests there is still work to be done. According to Grant Thornton International’s 2020 Women in Business study, only slightly more than a third (36%) of senior leaders believe it’s not true that their business rejects others with different views and perspectives. In fact, more than a quarter (28%) believe it’s mostly true while another 16% state that it’s always true.

People in your business reject others with different views and perspectives

Additionally, while less than half (48%) of senior leaders believe it’s mostly true that different points of view are encouraged in business meetings, only slightly more than a third (38%) think it’s always true, and 12% believe it’s only occasionally true.

Different points of view are encouraged in business meetings

Edmondson added that too often the culture in organizations is to not rock the boat. “No one ever got fired for silence,” she noted. “I think we tend to play not to lose. We stay safe. ‘I want to look good. I want to perform well.’ Learning is great, but not in front of people.”

This mindset is particularly true for women who often have to fight to have a seat at the table or be heard. Since 1911, when the first International Women’s Day was held, women all around the world have campaigned for safety. Workplace environments are among those spaces where psychological safety is most needed.

As Wendy Wright, Grant Thornton Director of Organizational Effectiveness noted, “I sometimes assume this is no longer happening because the women that I know who are at the table are very strong women who have a voice. Then I’ll sit in meetings and observe that this is still happening.”

She added, “I think it first starts with awareness. The more we can bring everyone to the same level of awareness, that’s how we start to break those patterns.”

Building a psychologically safe work environment and embracing diversity of thought among all employees are important ways organizations can normalize the “only” experience. It’s not uncommon for women to find themselves the only woman in a meeting or other workplace situations. As a result, women feel they have to constantly prove themselves, earning respect and being better at their job than a man does. LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company conducted their fourth annual study of women at work, looking at 279 companies with 64,000 participating employees. They found that one in five women is often the only woman in meetings or other situations at work. That statistic nearly doubles for women in senior-level positions; 40% of them reported being alone among all men. Not treating them as special or outcast is providing a safe space to them.

Adam Ross, Grant Thornton Managing Director, Business Advisory Services, stressed that “Diversity of team members drives diversity of thought, diversity of perspectives, diversity of experiences and diversity of ideas. The ability to achieve peak performance and strong steps forward can be inhibited without an inclusive culture.”

Adam Ross"Get off the sidelines. Recognize that there is an issue, even if at the most unconscious level. Be receptive to open and honest feedback."

Adam Ross
Managing Director, Business Advisory Services
Grant Thornton LLP
He added that promoting diversity of thought is critical to businesses today. “Companies like to work with those who share similar values and can connect on an individual level. Diversity and inclusiveness is a significant priority for all modern organizations. Diverse teams increase the opportunity to create meaningful connections at the individual and team level, quickly moving to collaboration, idea-sharing and trust.”

What actions can senior leaders take to champion a sense of inclusion among women? Ross suggests: “Get off the sidelines. Recognize that there is an issue, even if at the most unconscious level. Acknowledge that you and the company may not be perfect but are committed to doing better. Be receptive to open and honest feedback. Find women to sponsor and mentor.”

Ross added, “Talk openly about gender diversity. Have a fearless conversation with a team focused on breaking down barriers, creating trust through honesty and empathy, and building new connections with those who are different from you.”

Karen Hudson, Grant Thornton’s Chief Sales Officer, provided a real-world example that reinforces the idea that promoting inclusion and psychological safety is everyone’s job. “There was something going on at work that was bothering me, and a very senior woman leader at Grant Thornton gave me a poke and said, ‘If that is bothering you, why aren’t you speaking up about it?’ She really did help me to muster my courage and raise an issue. When I raised it, the response was very positive. I felt I was able to effect change because I had the courage to speak out and people were ready to listen and to make the needed changes.”

Karen Hudson"Let's be brave about speaking out. Let's assume positive intent that people take it the right way and help us move the ball forward for ourselves and all our female allies and colleagues."

Karen Hudson, Chief Sales Officer
Grant Thornton LLP
She added, “Let’s be brave about speaking out. Let’s assume positive intent that people take it the right way and help us to move the ball forward for ourselves and all our female allies and colleagues.”

10 strategies for cultivating a culture of psychological safety Psychological safety supports overall inclusion by allowing women and men to bring their whole selves to work, a concept to which Grant Thornton is strongly committed. Creating such a safe place provides a work environment where members from non-majority groups can share novel ideas and perspectives free from the risk of ridicule, rejection or penalty. In this type of environment, in short, employees are more likely to leverage their differences for good than mask them.

But actions speak louder than words. This psychologically safe workplace does not emerge on its own. Leaders must commit to fostering inclusion, innovation and a speak-up culture. They must model, promote and reward behaviors that promote a safe work environment.

Psychological safety can still be a fuzzy concept for organizations to wrap their head around. How to get started? Here are some steps to take:

  1. Embrace a culture of respectful debate. Formally appoint a devil’s advocate to reduce anxiety around speaking out by separating the argument from the individual. Emphasize a cooperative approach to conflict focused around collective goals and success. For example, employees might jot their ideas down on Post-it notes placed around the room for colleagues to read. A manager facilitates the group discussion based on the ideas noted, seeking the best way to integrate them to achieve the group’s shared objectives.
  2. Encourage personal storytelling. Sharing personal experiences helps create authentic connections with employees and develops empathy, leading to psychological safety.
  3. Ask questions. Model curiosity and encourage employees to voice their diverse perspectives and ideas. Actively seek dissenting views and do not shut down ideas. When people feel that their managers want to hear from them and value their perspectives, they are more likely to provide input to discussions.
  4. Allow for experimentation and failure. Provide support when employees encounter challenges in their efforts to innovate and deliver results. Demonstrate to employees that it’s okay to take reasonable risks even if they don’t always succeed. Remind them that failure is an opportunity to learn by highlighting your own failures that contributed to ultimate breakthroughs.
  5. Dismantle perceptions of hierarchy. Differences related to professional rank can inhibit the sharing of ideas. Power differentials can skew contributions toward members with higher status. Challenge junior staff to question your ideas and reward those who do.
  6. Model openness to feedback. Demonstrate that you value employees’ views by employing 360 feedback and deliberately seeking employees’ real-time feedback on your leadership skills.
  7. Set clear goals and key performance indicators. Psychological safety is not about being nice or lowering performance standards. Rather, it recognizes diversity and collaboration’s contribution to high performance.
  8. Offer development opportunities. When leaders assign high-profile stretch assignments to women, it signals to their direct reports that they trust their capabilities.
  9. Build a speak-up culture. No one person can have all the answers, so encourage employees to contribute to decision-making through create collaboration. Stress that the uncertainty and complexity of the business environment necessitate new solutions that can be generated only through diverse ideas.
  10. Highlight competencies. Promote the sharing of knowledge about group members’ skills and competencies. Suggest that group members share their short-form CV with other members of the group. Highlight the unique contributions each individual brings to the table.

Measure and monitor Cultivating a culture of psychological safety isn’t a one-and-done activity, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Like any culture effort, it needs to be measured and monitored. Formal surveys can help assess how employees feel about key questions:

  • Do employees feel free to share suggestions and concerns?
  • Are employees confident they won’t receive retaliation or criticism if they admit a mistake?
  • Are training and promotion opportunities fairly offered to employees?
  • Are different points of view encouraged in business meetings?
  • Does management listen to employees’ ideas and feedback?

Although gender inequality in the workplace has gradually narrowed, the issue of providing a psychologically safe place for women remains. Focusing on the efficiency of work isn’t enough. With the pursuit of great achievements of a diverse team comes the risk of failure, and employees must know they’ll have a soft place to land, whatever their gender.

March 8, 2020, is International Women’s Day. An equal world is an enabled world. Take action today for equality. #EachforEqual.