‘Jasmine’ is an early-career scientist in a large pharmaceutical company. When she listens to the team’s conversation, she’s concerned. She’s sensing what she believes are significant problems with a batch in production. She’s the only woman working in a team of more experienced men, and none of them have expressed any concern. So she doesn’t voice her concerns. She says to herself, ‘If I can see it, they must be able to, there must be something I don’t know that means it’s all OK.’ She trusts that her more experienced colleagues have things under control. She doesn’t express her thoughts out loud because of identity threat: she doesn’t feel safe to express her concerns and name the issue she sees because she is a highly visible minority team member. The batch fails, a week’s production is lost and with it, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Minutes before the 1997 airline disaster, where Korean Airlines flight 801 crashed into a mountain, the first officer and engineer could see that the flight was in trouble. There was poor visibility and the instrument readings didn’t match where they thought they were. It was only when it was clear that they were about to crash into a mountain that the two finally spoke up, telling the pilot to pull up and start their landing again. By then, it was just too late. The analysis of this terrible crash, and others experienced by the same airline, pointed to strict hierarchical and cultural norms as preventing the first officer and engineer from raising their concerns sooner, and with greater vigour. Despite the dire situation, the norms about speaking up in front of superiors were so entrenched that life-threatening information was not shared.
People in organisations often don’t feel powerful and confident to speak up, even to raise serious problems and issues, because they don’t feel safe to do so.
People don’t feel powerful to speak up because they anticipate there will be serious repercussions when they do. It may be seen as ‘career limiting’ or there’s the potential for embarrassment or humiliation if you get it wrong.
Dominant senior leaders, particularly in strongly hierarchical organisations or cultures, can easily crowd out other voices, not leaving room for those lower in the organisation to be heard. People become reluctant to challenge those in authority. As we’ve seen above, at its worst, this has devastating consequences. Where there is too much power and dominance, which projects invulnerability, safety is corroded.
Cultures aren’t always as inclusive as they could be. Catering to the psychological safety of the majority is one thing, but ensuring psychological safety for minority members requires more, and different, attention. Minority members may experience identity threat which means that they are even less likely to speak up.
And it’s not always about fear. Sometimes, people may feel uncertain about their own position, perhaps they don’t have clear-cut evidence, and therefore don’t offer their contribution. Giving voice to their ideas isn’t seen as dangerous, it just seems out of place.
You can deepen your learning culture by making the climate safer, sooner.
People will feel confident and powerful to fully contribute their ideas and their concerns.
When people feel safe together, they click together and there’s an ease to how they work with each other. This is what teams are all about.
When team members experience psychological safety, the team is well-positioned to adapt to the future. With the right support from senior leaders, a safe climate can encourage high levels of learning.
In my latest whitepaper, I outline what good safety leadership looks like, and the role that leaders play in developing more of it.
And contact me for more ideas on how to improve psychological safety in your team.