If You Want To Win Like Google or Amazon – Make Your People Feel Safe

Reproduced with kind permission from Forbes

In our practice at PeopleNotTech, we tell organizations that if they want Google, Apple or Amazon-like results they need Google, Apple or Amazon-like work culture. It is that simple. To emulate the velocity and speed of innovation that have created their success, one of the key things that these organizations uphold and eternally strive to better, is psychological safety.

What separates winning technology companies in Silicon Valley from other companies of all types elsewhere is their willingness to question everything and their thirst for fast improvement. This area is no exception. Although their efforts are far from public, they spend vast amounts of time and money to keep this top of mind and deeply comprehend its importance.

As the scarcity of surveys on the subject shows, when it comes to workplace psychological safety, even diagnosing its existence -or lack thereof- is difficult. As a result, identifying new ways to increase it is an even greater challenge. In particular as very few tools and best practices currently exist in the filed. This means that those of us working to create them, operate at the border of research and business, basically experimenting in continuous integration mode.

What is Psychological Safety?

“Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990). In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.”  according to Wikipedia

Having gained mass attention due to Google’s research into it, psychological safety as a group construct was first explored by pioneering organizational scholars in the 60s, experienced a renaissance starting in the 1990s and it is continuing in scholastic exercises today.

Nonetheless, studies into the way it fits in with the concepts of employer brand, employee engagement, employee happiness, applied learned behavior and competitive innovation practices through the lenses of much faster technology and the new ways of work are sorely lagging behind and it is in this arena that the payoff becomes so much more evident. A general need to keep the team happy is one thing, tying the health of that team’s interaction to their speed and accuracy of delivery is where it all starts making practical, transformative sense.

52% don’t feel psychologically safe at work

While studies on the way it is perceived across the board are few and far between, this one has recently emerged to various reactions. It states that 52% of us don’t feel psychologically safe at work.

Some have doubted the results – is 52% even accurate? Does it imply that 48% do? It seemed high to them, like a lot fewer people do in fact feel safe. Then again, this concept is so alien to employees everywhere, chances are that those polled haven’t even considered it before, that they didn’t think they ought to feel safe in their environment, that they rarely felt entitled to step up, try new things or have firm opinions and as such they calibrated their expectations to solely reflect whether or not they could be easily fired in the absence of this actions and should they merely toe the perceived party line, which is but a mere component of the overall equation.

To some this survey was horrifyingly bad news and to some it was unrealistic in numbers but both of those attitudes reflect the respective individual’s emotional and intellectual investment in the topic, the existence of which is great news. The most concerning group ought to be the category who either never heard of the term or, worse still, know what it stands for and yet don’t care enough to have opened the article or formulated an opinion.

That segment of leaders in every industry is who needs to stop pretending the way we do business hasn’t been completely transformed by technology and they need to fast comprehend that these are not fluffy inconsequential topics born out of workplace ennui or laziness but the secret sauce that can help them get business results.

Why does it matter?

Psychologically safe employees experiment, innovate, stay, perform, hit their KPIs, etc.

Irrespective of the yardstick companies use to measure performance all the way down to end of the year results, it can all be mapped back to their people’s degree of psychological safety.

Despite the fact that it is far easier to measure and therefore more evident in Agile project settings, the same concept applies to any type of team doing any type of work. While the occasions to demonstrate courage, initiative, passion, and grit may be less easy to spot in an old-school organizational structure that doesn’t benefit from the speed and introspection space the new ways of work afford individuals, stories of extraordinary employee acts happen all around us and the heroes of those are always the employees who feel they are safe to reach and grow.

While a lot should be said about a company’s moral imperative to make the employee’s life better, I find it to be as effective of an argument as the imperative to go paperless hinging solely on saving the rainforest. No company reduced their printing until they saw clear numbers on what they can save by doing so. Moral imperatives in themselves are nice, moral imperatives coupled with business cases are better and thankfully, when it comes to psychological safety, its correlation to every measurable dimension can actually be quantified in cold hard currency.

Will the real “Psychological Safety Officer” please stand up?

There is no magic bullet on how to measure, bring about and then preserve, a psychologically safe work environment even to those organizations that have advanced beyond the point of immature navel-gazing on whether this is a real thing or simply a trend out the Valley.

Finding out what is it that works for one’s employees, especially in huge organizations will undoubtedly be a long arduous task and then there is the question of whose job this is. I am also by no means implying this task falls squarely on the organization, I’m a big fan of personal responsibility and strongly believe there is much employees can do themselves to create an individual layer of workplace psychological safety by increasing their skills and brand capital but who in the company should be in charge of this?

I’d wager that eventually, anyone who is a leader in a company, will understand this is cornerstone to their job and ensure they work towards bringing more of it inside their respective teams over the next 10-15 years, but for now, while it is so apparently new and yet so crucially important and so time sensitive, this can’t be ring-fenced to a certain job title or as someone’s alternative task.

The two main actors that can make psychological safety become an element of workplace hygiene in lieu of a fancy nebulous terms are the CEO’s and CxOs that are a technologist at heart and understand Agile and aiding them and even more pivotal as they are the first ones to see solid results – product owners (even in the unfortunate instances where they are still called project managers or team leaders).

This approach is not top-to-bottom but top AND (relative) bottom as there is an entire middle layer who ironically, just doesn’t feel safe enough to be interested in change and growth and enough demonstrated belief in the concept at the very top, augmented by clear results and success indicators coming from the Agile teams will make their lives a lot better.

At PeopleNotTech, we’re in the midst of designing a feature that will increase the feeling of well being and safety in teams and we are leaving no stone unturned in the exploration of what it is that will work when you put the power of data, a solid algorithm and a deep understanding of what the levers are together, but our software alone won’t be the answer, the organization truly comprehending the intrinsic value is what will be needed to win.

Workplace psychological safety doesn’t mean being safe in one’s job in a complacent, secure fashion. It doesn’t mean people feel entitled to do away with the norms of morality or crossover company’s ethical boundaries in a renegade rampage in the name of extraordinarily innovative results. It simply means the organization must relentlessly find ways to give them what it is they need – be it the tools, the incentive, the respect, the freedom or simply the confidence to become the best versions of themselves they can be because when they are that, everybody wins.

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