Make sure that people aren’t silenced by fear

When people are in doubt of speaking up, silence always wins because no one ever got fired for silence right? If you are unsure or even scared of how speaking up will be perceived by your peers or leaders it is difficult to bring up the confidence to do so. However, if this means that you are not comfortable to address concerns that you have or mistakes that were made, this absence of what we call ‘psychological safety’ can have disastrous consequences for the organization.

Examples of companies having experienced the consequences of not having psychological safety can be found across all industries. Let’s first zoom in on an example of an automotive company case:

The top executives of Volkswagen had a very clear and compelling strategy: they wanted to become the biggest and most admired automotive company in the world. To reach this goal they needed to have a huge presence in the US market. They therefore targeted the green car niche. Their aspiration was to make the diesel motor highly popular and sell it as a green and therefore better choice than the regular gas engine. However, it was technically impossible at that time to build a diesel motor that could pass the admission standards of the US market. Instead of confronting their bosses and senior executives with their unrealistic view, the engineers decided to build a software that would cheat the regulators instead. They thought it was more feasible, psychologically and intellectually, to build the cheat software than tell their bosses simply that it couldn’t be done.

Another, more recent example is Boeing. Employees of Boeing had many concerns about the 737 Max jetliner and expressed these concerns among each other thoroughly. However, the employees felt like it wouldn’t be acceptable to express these concerns publicly at meeting since the culture at Boeing was implicitly stating that meetings are moments to agree with the boss or majority and the employees had lost trust in the organisation and its senior executives.

Both examples show how dangerous the absence of psychological safety at work can be. If the employees of both Volkswagen and Boeing would have felt more psychologically safe, they might have felt comfortable enough to speak up to their bosses and express their concerns. Building a healthy culture where candid conversations are possible is more important than ever because of the high level of uncertainty and risk in many industries nowadays. Without psychological safety, it might look like there is good performance when there actually isn’t.

So how to heal a “sick” culture? It starts with leaders building a culture of psychological safety where employees believe that candor is expected and welcome. How? Remind people that you understand the risks, uncertainties and complexities that come with the work they are doing and invite as well as appreciate employee participation.

If you are interested in a more detailed description of how to build psychological safety as a leader: read our article ‘3 tips to boost psychological safety as a leader’ and contact our experts: Leonie Arkesteijn (l.arkesteijn@samhoud.com), Roosmaryn Spliet (r.spliet@samhoud.com) or Koen Husmann (k.husmann@samhoud.com).

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