Psych safety as life bouy

If you work in a large organisation, chances are your organisation has an executive/manager capability framework, and if you look at the communications-related capabilities, you’ll probably see that the framework emphasises things like executives being able to build compelling narratives, argue their case, and persuade others. While each framework has its distinctive features, a common underpinning tends to be of the executive/manager as strong, decisive, articulate and influential.

Fair enough you might say. But how does such a framing fit with considerations of psychological safety?

This concept has been around for over 20 years thanks to the research of Amy Edmondson of Harvard but has gained more traction since the publication of research from Google’s Project Aristotle in 2014. This work found that psychological safety was the most important differentiator between more and less effective teams in the company.

Psychological safety implies employees at all levels – even very senior – being able to speak up and say what they think and feel without fear of adverse consequences. This is massively important if we’re serious about including and valuing all voices in the organisation, hearing about risks and errors, tapping diverse intelligence on complex issues, and fostering learning throughout.

In my 25 years-plus consulting experience, a perceived lack of safety in speaking up has been, at least implicitly, an issue in virtually every environment I’ve worked in. What then might be some implications for executive capabilities, especially those to do with communications?

I suggest it’s vital that executives and managers can:

  • Work from observable data rather than reacting and rushing to interpretations
  • Shift perspectives to imagine what relevant others see and experience, without lapsing into judging those others negatively
  • Disclose something of their own relevant feelings (i.e., be able to speak from the heart as well as the head)
  • Recognise and examine assumptions, including their own
  • Ask probing questions, while minimising threat, to explore others’ views and test interpretations
  • Receive feedback non-defensively
  • Demonstrate ability to move appropriately between utilising their formal authority and working collaboratively (i.e., temporarily ‘taking off their authority hat’ when needed)

To what degree does your organisation reflect considerations of psychological safety in the ways it frames executive and manager effectiveness?

Originally posted on LinkedIn 12th October 2022

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