Do your employees feel safe speaking up when they disagree, have concerns or want to share new ideas?

By Dr. Bill Howatt

The ultimate goal in creating a psychologically safe workplace culture is that employees believe they will not be humiliated, punished, or isolated for speaking up with observations, ideas, questions, and concerns.

Psychologically safe leaders understand that they play an essential role in driving this fear out of the workplace and creating a safe environment for employees to flourish. They also know that modern-day workforce success is dependent on employees feeling welcomed, included, and safe.

When employees know leaders care about them as a person, not just as a worker, it builds trust.  And, when this level of trust exists, it is fertile ground for employees to collaborate, innovate and share their opinions without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Silence is not always golden

On the surface, silence may appear positive. As the old cliché goes, “No news is good news.” However, silence might stem from employees feeling unsafe and fearful about interacting with their managers and other leaders. If it isn’t addressed, this type of distrust can prevent them from speaking up about important matters, such as safety issues or business risks.

Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization says research shows that most working adults can recall a time in their career history when they chose not to speak up because they felt fearful about the consequences of doing so. She notes that is isn’t always about something significant, but when that choice is made, it is a gain for the worker. They feel 100% safe in that moment. The have avoided the risk of seeming disruptive, or being judged as ignorant or incompetent. However, the organization and others lose out on the benefit of different perspective and possibly an important bit of insight or information.

If employees aren’t speaking up, offering suggestions, or debating, you should ask yourself why. You may need to self-evaluate and seek feedback to understand what unspoken barriers exist.

If your employees are reticent to share their thoughts, it may be because they are worried doing so will negatively impact their jobs. Some may worry about being passed over for promotions and new opportunities. Others might fear appearing weak, or being looked down upon for making a suggestion that is not accepted.

You need to know what is holding them back and address any issues that exist. Seeking this type of feedback takes courage, but the short-term pain will most definitely translate into long-term gain. Understanding and breaking down these barriers is an important step towards creating a psychologically safe workplace.

What you can do to encourage employees to speak up

  • Adopt a learning mindset — With this mindset, you will be open to receiving feedback that can help you and other leaders in the organization grow into psychologically safe leaders. It also shows your employees that you recognize mistakes happen and that they are important learning opportunities. Make it a part of the dialogue with employees that mistakes and learning work together, and there is no such thing as perfection. Encourage employees to feel free to come to you as a leader when they make mistakes. And when they do, be mindful of how you react. If your actions don’t align with your words it will worsen the situation.
  • Protect your integrity and your brand — We’ve seen plenty of examples of organizations that have suffered because employees were fearful of speaking up, or if they did, they were shut down, or worse. Facebook is a current example. Wells Fargo and Volkswagen also faced the high cost of employees keeping mum. If you are operating with integrity, your employees should feel confident raising a flag when they believe a decision, action or inaction, may put your business, customers, or community at risk.
  • Ask for feedback regularly — Set the expectation with teams that your role is to create an atmosphere where employees feel safe to speak up. Create confidence and build trust by keeping the channels of communication and repeatedly asking for feedback.
  • Acknowledge this won’t aways be easy —Remind yourself that it won’t always be easy to hear what they have to say. Sometimes, people will bring difficult challenges to the table, or a perspective that is flawed. It takes energy, tolerance, and patience to listen even when you don’t agree, and especially when you are working under deadlines and pressure.
  • Ask open-ended questions — Asking employees open-ended questions (e.g., what do you think about …?) generates conversation and creates opportunities to discover their points of view. The more employees believe their leader is listening and open to different perspectives, the more they will answer questions truthfully.
  • Challenge employees to find risk — It is often easier for some people to see what is not working than what is working. Leaders can get employees’ points of view and show that they value their expertise by asking them to be critical and find risks in an appropriate manner. Reinforce the importance of respectfully challenging, rather than just detracting from others’ ideas and work. Do not judge; welcome opposing thoughts and encourage your employees to do the same.

Listening is a powerful micro-skill for building trust with employees. Employees are more apt to respect and trust leaders who listen, are decisive and transparent, and are willing to explain why they made their decisions.

You do not have to agree with everything your employees share. What matters is that employees see you as a psychologically safe leader who will listen and try to understand their points of view without becoming defensive, shutting them down or punishing them.

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