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Psychological safety – A new department opportunity?

As a leader, what is your take on psychological safety?

  • It provides me with latitude in how I enact the company strategy.

  • A symptom of a general degradation in the resilience of workers.

  • It enables my team to challenge my decisions without being reproached.

  • A cause for concern, given that ‘burnt out’ workers are happy to share their employer experience on social media.

Not all these responses reflect an enlightened approach to leadership. But they do reflect a transition from the master-slave industrial factory model, where people are disposable cogs in the machine, to a model where the worker is central to the organisation’s value proposition. In other words a transition from cog worker to cognitive worker. Cognition being the fuel that drives innovation.

Adapt or cry?

Adaptation is key to operating in an increasingly disrupted world. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution equally applies to organisations and thus we need to build organisations that are, in effect, living organisms.

Adaptation can only happen if we sense how our environment is changing, decide how we must adapt and then act. Feedback is critical to sensing and decision making. Action invariably leads to feedback.

The traditional command and control model is typically more interested in preservation of order than feedback. A steep hierarchy attenuates market reality. So a major concern expressed by the sales force about the newly launched product becomes a vague reference to post-launch teething problems at the next c-suite gathering, whenever that might be.

Mission improbable

Thus empowering your people to speak up and speak out is imperative to identifying signals that suggest that it is time to adapt. Your people are more likely to buy into the organisation’s mission if they are helping to architect its success. Conversely, if they are likely to be rebuked for their challenging or ‘off book’ behaviour, they will likely conclude that the situation is a car crash in the making and will thus likely make plans to be elsewhere at the point of impact.

It’s not you

A lack of autonomy or influence is a recipe for anxiety. And anxiety is a waste of cognitive potential and so from a leadership perspective is thus mismanagement of a key organisational asset. We tend to think of the executive leaders and managers as the determinants of whether psychological safety is woven into the organisation’s culture.

The reality is that they are equally likely to be a victim of psychological danger.

Consideration needs to be given regarding the influence of:

  • The board over the executive leadership.

  • The shareholders over the board.

  • The stock exchanges over shareholders.

  • The stock exchange regulators over the stock exchanges.

  • The government over the regulators.

We need a head of psychological safety?

Psychological danger expressed in some quantified manner, eg. gross organisational anxiety per capita, would be useful to potential employees, analysts and investors. Such a measure might indicate that most of the anxiety is at the shopfloor level and so one might easily conclude that ‘sheep dipping’ your lower management on an employee sensitivity course would largely address the problem. Another way to not address the issue would be to appoint a head of psychological safety. They would sit alongside your head of sustainability and head of diversity as signals of how you are (not actually) dealing with the issue.

Cause vs symptoms

The key point here is that psychological safety is not simply a team-dynamics problems but a societal one. No amount of awareness training, wellness apps, hybrid working and dress down Fridays can patch over this uncomfortable reality.

That people are starting to snap is a reflection that something broken. Leadership and the frameworks on which leadership sits need a reset. Psychological danger is simply a consequence of an industrial era operating model struggling to maintain its integrity in the light of today’s post-industrial reality.


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