Every workplace environment has its pros and cons, but there’s a fear lurking in the professional world which can become detrimental to overall company performance.
Amy Edmonson, Harvard professor and author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” says that the fear of speaking up can stifle an employee’s own ability to do their job, and that it can inhibit a company’s potential for innovation.
Edmonson, who researches and advocates for what she calls “psychological safety” in the workplace, says, “I think it’s OK to be afraid of missing a deadline, or the many challenges we face at work, but it’s not OK to be afraid of each other.” Having embedded herself in several companies for her research, Edmonson witnessed a fear of what others in the workplace might think, which can drive silence and in turn, stifle productivity.
Edmonson goes on to say that anyone across levels of management can encourage psychological safety at work. “All you have to do is express interest in and respect for a colleague. To do that you ask a question,” which she says instills respect across levels of management and their subordinates. She notes that gender does play a role, saying that women generally require themselves to have more confidence in what they have to say in order to speak up. “Men will put the threshold lower, and that would be a nice gap to close,” she says.
Disney’s (DIS) Pixar and Eileen Fisher are two companies Edmonson cites as exemplary where psychological safety is concerned. She recounts researching a team of over 900 artists, designers, and animators working harmoniously while making Disney’s mega-hit “Frozen.” She notes that an “environment of criticism” was encouraged, where members of different teams could offer opinions. Edmonson says Eileen Fisher, founder of her namesake clothing company, is comfortable saying “I don’t know” which promotes solution-driven work within the company.
Companies who have suffered from lack of psychological safety include Wells Fargo, whose series of scandals were among the case studies conducted by Edmonson for her book. Employees were given unrealistic sales goals, but they were afraid to speak up or speak back, so instead “they did all sorts of crazy things that no one would do if they didn’t feel afraid of the boss,” Edmonson says – including creating fictitious customer accounts and lying to customers about minimum product purchase requirements. It ended up costing the company millions of dollars to settle lawsuits that came about as a result of this behavior.
“The dynamic workplaces of the future are the ones where everyone is just jumping in,” Edmonson says. Psychological safety is not cozy necessarily, but it is “an expectation and a welcoming of candor,” and necessary for organizations to reap the rewards of teamwork.
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