Grow and Convert Leadership and Innovation

Why psychological safety at work matters and how to create it

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How to create a culture where it’s “safe” to express ideas, ask questions, and admit mistakes?

You’ve probably experienced a situation where you didn’t get to ask a question you wanted to ask. Or perhaps you had an idea but opted to remain silent. Several research studies have revealed “that people often hold back even when they believe that what they have to say could be important for the organization, the customer, or themselves.”

According to a Gallup poll, only three out of ten employees strongly agree with the assertion that their opinions are valued at work. Many business leaders emphasize the relevance of the “voice of the employee” in decision-making. But what exactly does that mean? And how can leaders achieve success?

Why is psychological safety important?

Many managers continue to believe in the power of fear to motivate. They believe that people who are fearful of management or the penalties of underperformance will try hard to avoid negative outcomes. However, where learning or teamwork is required for success, fear is ineffective as a motivator.

According to the author, psychological safety is “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In other words, it’s a shared expectation that no one will be “punished” or judged for speaking up with feedback, questions, or concerns. Psychological safety means being honest and letting people argue in a healthy way. It also means letting people share their ideas freely, which is important for learning and coming up with new ideas. It lays the groundwork for a more honest, demanding, collaborative, and thus more productive work environment, and it is evident that it is a critical leadership responsibility. It has the potential to make or break an employee’s ability to contribute, develop expertise, and collaborate.

your ideas matter

Psychological safety promotes high performance

In every business dealing with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), psychological safety is directly related to the bottom line. This is due to the fact that employee observations, questions, suggestions, and concerns can provide critical information about what’s going on, both in the market and within the company itself.

Case study: Project Aristotle at Google. Building The Perfect Team

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative (code-named Project Aristotle) to study hundreds of company’s teams, focused on building the perfect team. The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns. by Charles Duhigg.

The goal of the project was to answer the question, “What makes a team effective at Google?”

After studying over a hundred groups for over a year, Project Aristotle researchers came to the conclusion that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to enhancing Google’s teams. Researchers observed two behaviours shared by all successful teams. First, on the good teams, members spoke in nearly the same proportion, a characteristic known as ”equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” according to the researchers. Second, the good teams all exhibited high ”average social sensitivity,” or the ability to determine how others felt based on their tone of voice, emotions, and other nonverbal indicators.

As Duhgg wrote, “When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place.”

Amy C. Edmonson concluded, “What they had discovered was that even the extremely smart, high-powered employees at Google needed a psychologically safe work environment to contribute the talents they had to offer. The team also found four other factors that helped explain team performance: clear goals, dependable colleagues, personally meaning work, and a belief that the work has an impact.”

The Effects of Workplace Fear

The scandal of Volkswagen Group

In September 2015, the world’s largest automotive company was facing an unimaginable scandal.

Volkswagen admitted to widespread falsification of pollution tests in the United States.

The fraudulent software was installed in over 11 million vehicles worldwide.

The consequences were significant fines and reputational harm for Volkswagen. By 2018, the fraud had cost more than 25 billion euros.

As part of the global repercussions, the corporation was fined 196.5 million CAD in Canada.

CEO Martin Winkerkorn resigned, taking “full responsibility” while denying “wrongdoing,” and at least nine senior managers were suspended.

How could this failure have been avoided?

As one executive at VW told reporters, “There was always a distance, a fear, and a respect…. if he would come and visit or you had to go to him, your pulse would go up. If you presented bad news, those were the moments that it could become quite unpleasant, loud, and quite demeaning.”

Other managers cited instances when Winterkorn blamed engineers for paint that exceeded regulations by less than a milometer.

CEO of the Volkswagen Group, had a reputation as arrogant with an obsessive attention to detail.

A video shot at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2011 and widely viewed on YouTube shows Winterkorn’s irritation at discovering that Hyundai had managed to engineer a steering wheel that was silent when adjusted from the driver’s seat—a feat that VW had been unable to master.

“Bishoff!” barks Winterkorn, as if to lay the blame on his design chief, Klaus Bischoff, and voices displeasure that a rival company managed to get rid of the “clonking sound”.  See you the video.

As mentioned by the Amy. C. Edmondson, “The belief that people may not push themselves hard enough without a clear understanding of the negative consequences of failing to do so is widespread and even taken granted by many in management roles, along with just as many casual onlookers contemplating human motivation at work. What many people do not realise is that motivation by fear is indeed highly effective – effective at creating the illusion that goals are being achieved. It is not effective in ensuring that people bring the creativity, good proceed, and passion needed to accomplish challenging goals in knowledge-intensive workplaces.”

 VW’s collapse was the product of a system that looked for highly ambitious targets that could only be accomplished through deception.  Employees were subjected to a fear-based atmosphere that tolerated no dissent.

Ferdinand Piech, VW’s chairman, CEO, and largest shareholder, influenced Winterkorn’s leadership. Piech believed that frightening subordinates was the most effective approach to producing successful design.

Volkswagen is an example of a company with deep pools of expertise, driven intellectual leaders, and well-articulated goals. In a nutshell, they possessed the necessary skills. What the corporation lacked was the leadership required to create an environment of psychological safety in the workplace, allowing employees to speak the truth to authority within the organization.

A culture of silence is a dangerous one.

Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence, an environment where speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded. Amy C. Edmonson defines a culture of silence, “as a culture in which the prevailing winds favor going along rather than offering one’s concerns. It is based on the assumption that most people’s voices do not offer value and thus will not be valued.

How psychological safety works

Psychological safety is not about being “nice” or avoiding conflict. It is about creating an environment where people feel comfortable taking risks, sharing ideas, and challenging the status quo.

When people speak up, ask questions, debate vigorously, and commit themselves to continuous learning and improvement, good things happen.

The first step is to speak up. The ultimate measurement is how leaders react when people speak up. Setting the stage and soliciting involvement does help to promote psychological safety. However, if the supervisor reacts angrily or dismissively when someone speaks up about a problem, safety will quickly dissipate. A productive reaction must be grateful and respectful and provide a way ahead.

Case study of Pixar

In its early days, Pixar Animation Studios struggled to meet the success of his film animations, all of which were big flops, until they met their highest-grossing film, Toy Story, which was a game changer.

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull credits the studio’s success, in part, to candor. His definition of candor as forthrightness or frankness and his insight that we associate the word “candor” with true-telling and a lack of reserve support psychological safety’s tenets. When candor is part of the workplace culture, people don’t feel silenced. They say what’s on their minds and share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. The company put in place what the co-founder called “Braintrust.”

The Braintrust’s recipe is fairly simple: a group of directors and storytellers watch an early run of the movie together, provide candid feedback to the director, and help solve creative problems.

To be effective, managers have to monitor dynamics continually over time. It helps enormously if people respect each other’s expertise and trust each other’s opinions. As the Pixar director mentioned, this group of people “makes you think smarter and puts lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.” That’s’ why psychological safety is essential to innovation and progress. We can only think smarter if others in the room speak their minds.

Evolutionary theories and Innovative Management

Pascal Picq is a renowned French paleoanthropologist and senior lecturer at the Collège de France. He studies the origins and evolution of man and the great apes. His work focuses on the processes of innovation and group management around the concept of Anthroprise (Un Paléoanthropologue dans l’Entreprise Eyrolles 2011).

In light of his research, the paleoanthropologist and Collège de France member has spent the last decade analyzing corporate innovation management.

The paleoanthropologist offers insights into the management of innovation by drawing parallels between human evolution and organizational dynamics. Picq is an advocate of a management strategy that draws from evolutionary theories. By studying the origins and evolution of the great apes, he suggests implementing innovative management strategies that align with the principles observed in the natural world.

I have been following his work since I was a student at the Sorbonne Paris V University in Paris.

According to him, there are two kinds of innovations: one called Lamarckism. Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829) published his transformation theory in ” Philosophie Zoologique” in 1809. In 1802, he introduced the term ”biology”, and the other is Darwinism.

Lamarkian innovation

This is an example of active innovation. Lamarck’s intuition was that species tend to perfect themselves, even though he had no idea what this possibility signified. The environment does not cause innovation, but it does urge organisms to modify themselves; these are transformism and evolution by adaptation.

The former is in response to environmental concerns. Engineers and applied researchers use this technique. The second technique is fundamental research, which is based on the Darwinian process and generates ideas without determining their significance or utility. The question is not whether to oppose the two types of innovation against each other, but rather when and under what conditions they should be pursued. Before Lamarkian greatness can enter the arena, a true innovation policy must promote creative and Darwinian chaos.

The Darwinian innovation

For Darwinian innovation to take hold, we need to lose “time” to create the conditions to produce ideas, which once again requires a culture of trial and error. The researcher named these conditions ”brainstorming’’ or ”Marvellous thinking’’.

Pascal Picq noted, ‘’The film “Up” (2009) is a good example of Darwinian innovation. The group of screenwriters at Pixar was working on the sequel to Toy Story. They began with a certain concept that could be termed “Lamarckian.” However, the screenwriters behaved in a Darwinian way: they dropped all the ideas they could think of—one of them thought of a house that flies away with balloons. It was a terrible subject, but the idea was noted down, only to be taken up again later, resulting in ‘’Up’’ with the success we all know’’.

Risk and failure are viewed as vital parts of the creative process in the ”brainstorming” process. Catmull believes that if people are not allowed to fail, they will “seek instead to repeat something safe that has been good enough in the past.” Experimentation and the trial-and-error process are required for innovation. In other words, failure is a normal part of the process of learning and exploring. The real failure is attempting something, discovering it does not work, and then continuing to do it nonetheless. It takes skill to fail successfully. It is advantageous to fail at the appropriate moment and for the appropriate reasons.

As I write these words, I can’t help thinking about the late Hiring and Delivering Project Director at TNT Express, an international courier delivery services company that was acquired by FedEx in Mauritius (despite the European Commission’s attempt to block the acquisition). He was a beloved director and a well-respected guy within the organization, as well as among Accenture and Ceridian colleagues who shared our floors. He understood how to build a psychologically secure environment in which all employees felt comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions, resulting in superior decision-making processes. Before joining the company, I was a sociology teacher who taught psychological safety at work to upper-class students at a college, so the subject was not unknown to me.
I was the company’s youngest team leader. He paved the way for me to become the person I am today, and I am still learning from his lessons today. He was an invaluable friend and mentor. I’ll never forget our passionate discussions about psychological safety at work and how to create a safe atmosphere for employees.

At Managerial level

A recent study  showed that managers have roughly the same impact on people’s mental health as a domestic or romantic partner and more than a doctor or therapist.

It is crucial as a leader to connect with and care for your employees. Managers must make an effort to show their teams, through their words and actions, that their workplace is a safe place where people can be themselves.

Managers who treated team members as unique individuals significantly boosted team psychological safety more than in any other group.


When looking for new job opportunities, candidates examine a variety of aspects, including location, role, benefits, and income, to mention a few. Yet there is another factor that is more difficult to define on paper but is equally important: organizational culture.

Once psychological safety has been established in the company, communicating the impact of this culture to potential new personnel has a significant influence. Case studies illustrating how your company has evolved more inclusive procedures or launched new products in response to employee input, candor, and open conversation can be particularly beneficial.

Hiring talent simply isn’t enough anymore. People have to be in workplaces where they are able and willing to use their talents. In any organization that requires knowledge of psychological safety, this is a requirement for success.

Making the environment safe for open communication about challenges, concerns, and opportunities is one of the most important leadership responsibilities in the twenty-first century.

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Grow and Convert Leadership and Innovation

Kannen Parmanum

I have been interested in the ever-evolving thought leadership space for most of my life; this enthusiasm has led me to research new techniques and trends with practical applications while also sharing book reviews based on what these books taught me.

On a personal note, I enjoy reading books on philosophy and astrophysics, which provide me with valuable creative insights into problem-solving techniques.

My ambition is focused on making strong, impactful contributions to high-performing teams.

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