The Interpersonal Skills of Psychological Safety

The topic of “psychological safety” in organizations is increasingly discussed in both academic and non-academic forums. Although the phrase has been defined in different ways, it most frequently refers to the ability for employees to speak candidly in an organization on a wide range of business-related topics without fear of risking one’s status in an organization or even one’s job itself. Psychological safety speaks to the value of creating a culture of honesty in an organization that permits ideas to be shared freely. In doing so, it is argued that psychological safety fosters “organizational learning” by encouraging the flow of ideas at all levels of the organization and by avoiding the perils of “groupthink,” in which teams become entrapped by an artificial consensus.

Framed in this way, the values of psychological safety can present as kind of a “motherhood” and “apple pie” of organizational life. What organization wouldn’t want to expand organizational learning or avoid groupthink? Yet many employees would attest that such safety is an unrealized goal within their organizations, even when it is espoused. Why is an almost universally recognized organizational value, be so hard to attain in practice?

One reason is that while enhancing organizational decision making through the flow of open communication is a very rational goal, people aren’t always rational; therefore, neither are organizations. A host of emotions informs individual actions, some conscious and some not. There are individual drives to protect against encroachments of ego that can make an individual feel vulnerable in some way -what is often perceived as “defensiveness.” Despite our expressed interest in the “gift” of feedback for self-improvement, receiving feedback is hard and can feel threatening depending on the situation. And as is sometimes said about other “gifts” -it can feel better to give than receive.

Conversely, giving feedback in organizations is not always easy either, especially when we are considering giving it vertically, specifically upward, within organizational hierarchy. There is an inherent power dynamic in organizations -some people have more of it than others. That power differential can have economic ramifications making upward directness feel potentially risky. Some worry that even a well-intended rebuttal to a senior leader’s position is a potential threat to livelihood and consequently financial health.

Psychological safety may be an expressed value, however, like a lot of values its authentic expression lies in action rather than words. Attaining psychological safety in organizations is something that doesn’t happen naturally, rather it must be proactively cultivated.

Surveys as a Double Edge Sword

One mechanism organizations typically use in collecting “direct” feedback is anonymous employee surveys. Surveys can be a useful tool for collecting employee opinions, however it is important to realize that the very anonymity promised through surveys is also an acknowledgment that many employees would not be comfortable giving that feedback through direct and personal dialogue. Surveys also have drawbacks. Because there is no interpersonal interaction in a survey, the concerns of respondents are not always clear or actionable. Numerical ratings give a directional signal in terms of general themes, but they are typically not concrete about the thinking behind those ratings. Even comments in a survey are subject to interpretation. For example, someone may indicate that communication “isn’t good” in an organization, the vagueness of the statement results in assumptions as to how to interpret those comments. In fact, two respondents may indicate the same “communication” concerns but mean very different things by that. I’ve been in many leadership meetings where we try to assess the intent behind the comments or ratings in a survey.

A second problem with respect to surveys and psychological safety is whether employees trust that the survey is fully anonymous. In an understandable effort to interpret surveys in the context of specific categories of employees (e.g., division, level, or function) employees may worry that ratings or comments in a survey could be somewhat traceable. Consequently, there is always a danger that even in a truly anonymous survey, people hold back. 

The Skills of Getting Direct Honest Feedback

The best indication of psychological safety within an organization is its ability to solicit direct and honest feedback from employees and engage in healthy dialogue on relevant issues. In order to do that, individuals within organizations, and especially its leaders, need to develop a specific set of interpersonal skills. They include the ability to: 1) invite feedback, 2) respond thoughtfully to feedback, 3) engage in respectful dialogue, and 4) uncover hidden assumptions. These may all sound simple but between organizational dynamics and individual psychology that may not always be the case.

Inviting Feedback The most obvious way to elicit feedback is to ask for it. But how we ask for it and how often we ask for it sends a message to employees or even peers as to how genuine the desire is to hear contrary viewpoints. How invitations are constructed engender different reactions on the part of the listener for how much feedback is really sought. Managers that give a forceful articulation of their positions followed by the question, “any thoughts?” may get a different level of candor than if the question had been articulated as “I’d like to get your honest reactions to this,” or “tell me what I may be missing here.” There are a lot of different ways to phrase authentic feedback requests; the point is that some ways of framing are more effective than others at eliciting honest opinions.

Keep in mind that asking for feedback in a genuine way presupposes we want it. Let’s be honest; sometimes we don’t. We may become decided on a particular course of action, or fear that seeking reaction to a controversial or difficult situation will open a pandora’s box that can’t be closed. However, just because we don’t ask for feedback, it doesn’t mean the reactions to organizational decisions go away; they can just go underground. Nor does asking for feedback mean that a leader necessarily must change one’s mind on an issue; it is just demonstrating that it’s safe to raise alternative points of view.

Responding Thoughtfully to Feedback Of course, asking for feedback is only the first part of the equation. How we respond to feedback is critical in determining whether or not people in an organization feel there is safety in raising issues. Does the initial response to a different perspective appear to aim to shut it down immediately (e.g., “that will never work…”; or “you’re not thinking clearly about this”); or is there an openness to continued dialogue. (e.g., “tell me more about why you think that”)? It is difficult to respond thoughtfully when emotions are running high on a particular issue, or when the feedback presented feels like a personal attack.

The latter presents the other dynamic of psychological safety, whether it registers under that heading, managers or leaders may feel psychologically unsafe when they perceive their competency or integrity is being attacked, (even if the feedback is not necessarily intended that way). Staying composed is difficult under these conditions, but that is perhaps when it’s most incumbent on a manager to react in a way can create the conditions for a productive dialogue.

Engaging in Respectful Dialogue What are the conditions for a productive dialogue? The coupling of honesty with respect is critical. In her bestselling book Radical Candor, Kim Scott focuses on the importance of the honesty part of the equation with a compelling argument on the importance of directness in managerial conversations. However, in the preface to the updated version of the book she speaks to the importance infusing respect and compassion into those dialogues, acknowledging that the modifier of “radical” to candor led some people to apply her concepts in ways she did not intend. “Some people were using Radical Candor as a license to behave like jerks, conflating Obnoxious Aggression and Manipulative Insincerity with Radical Candor.” Honesty can be utilized as a weapon that impedes psychological safety, or it can be employed in a way that expands it. So much of that is the sense of respect and compassion that accompanies any direct feedback, and the intentionality towards mutual respect and professional development.

Uncovering Hidden Assumptions Another skill for engaging in respectful and productive dialogue is systematically uncovering the underlying assumptions of another’s point of view. Heated conversations can devolve to volleys of opinions: I advocate for my point, then you advocate for your point, and then we do it all over again as part of an infinite argumentative loop. Once we get into those loops, how often do we stop and ask the other to clarify what they mean, or how they got to those opinions? Arguing in favor of our own viewpoint is reasonable and very natural; less natural is the systematic inquiry into the viewpoints of others through genuine questions designed not to “trap” the other individual but to truly understand the assumptions upon which another point of view is grounded.

One approach to getting to root assumptions is based on the concept of “ladder of inference;” whereby inferences and attributions are attached to the very words or actions upon which they are based. Because human minds almost instantaneously draw a host of inferences based on personal experiences, the statement, “I am not sure about that approach” can immediately become interpreted as “Jess, hated that approach,” or even “Jess is being stubborn.” In having productive conversations, it is important to separate empirical facts from inferences made.

It is important to remember that respectful dialogue does not necessarily mean agreement or consensus. Someone always has the final decision-making authority in an organization and the fact that a decision has not gone one’s way does not necessarily indicate that there was no respectful dialogue, nor that the alternative point of view was not heard. Psychological safety represents the ability to speak openly about issues relevant to some facet of the business or organizational life. It is not a guarantee of achieving one’s desired outcomes.

Psychological Safety is a Continuous Goal Not an Endpoint

As tempting as it is to see psychological safety as an organizational endpoint (€œwe are a psychologically safe organization”) there is danger in being complacent about such safety as an “achievement” rather than as an ongoing commitment. The complexities of organizational dynamics and human psychology make absolute safety a worthy ideal, but in reality, there should always be a healthy curiosity on the part of organizational leaders to uncover where they personally, their teams, as well as the organization as a whole, may be falling short of that ideal.

Psychological safety in organizations is similarly less of a dichotomous yes or no, and more of a continuum about what is and isn’t discussable within an organization. Clearly, not every potential conversation is necessarily relevant or appropriate for discussion in an organization. Therefore, it is incumbent upon organizations to be clear regarding what is and isn’t appropriate, and to live by those values.

Firms that value psychological safety and want to ensure that value is effectively socialized throughout the organization can begin with open discussions between leaders and their teams. Recalling that actions speak louder than words, it is imperative for leaders to embrace the skills outlined above, and model behavior that reinforces a commitment to a psychologically safe environment.

Additional posts from Howard Seidel

The New “Discussability” of Mental Health: Applications to Organizational Life

Managing Multiple Executive Job Offers

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