Feeling the need to speak out at work and yet not doing so is something most people do from time to time. Whether you didn’t quite agree with a business discussion or wanted to question an action or the way in which it was delivered, having your voice stifled is commonplace within many working environments. And the impact this can have on morale, creativity and productivity is immense – leading to frustration and, if we are deterred from speaking out in the long-term, even anxiety and depression.
A few years ago, my own experience with a group of senior individuals highlighted exactly how frequently this happens. A mix of leaders, academics and consultants, they all shared talent and success. And they had all had first-hand experience of instances where they had stayed quiet, held back and chosen not to let their voice be heard. The consequences of this were profound, and, for some, serious. I remain amazed by the level, as demonstrated by this cross-section of talented achievers, of ideas, innovations and actions that are going unheard within the business world today because it simply doesn’t feel ‘safe enough’ for us to speak.
For many of us, the reasons for not speaking up are down to fear – fear of being judged by our leaders or peers – and the negative repercussions that this could have on both our development and our careers. Yet the most overlooked factor in allowing people’s voice to be heard is our willingness to listen. For everyone who speaks out, there needs to be a recipient to that voice, who will really hear and then respond to them. A conversation where we are truly listening is one where we listen to understand and allow ourselves to be impacted or changed by what we hear.
Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, observes, “Silence in today’s economic environment is deadly. Silence means good ideas and possibilities don’t bubble up, and problems don’t get addressed. Silence stymies teaming. Most people feel a need to manage what I call interpersonal risk – a risk that others will think less of them – so as to minimize harm to their image, especially in the workplace, and especially in the presence of bosses and others who hold formal power.”
Edmondson uses the term ‘psychological safety’ which, she says, “describes a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings.” She continues, “Psychological safety makes it possible to give tough feedback and have difficult conversations without the need to tiptoe round the truth. In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalise or think less of them for it.”
And there are clear benefits of this – it can allow us to speak up; enable clarity of thought; support productive conflict; mitigate failure; promote innovation; removes obstacles for achieving performance; and increase accountability. Leaders have a key role to play in creating psychological safety – whether through displaying their own fallibility, seeing learning opportunities through failure, inviting participation, or simply being accessible and approachable.
When working with teams as a consultant and coach, there are a number of tools and techniques that I draw on to support psychological safety in the workplace. Regardless of the personalities, history or typical behavioural patterns within a team, there are ways in which teams can learn to work together differently to enable new ideas and thinking to be heard and explored.
In short, it is vital that we, and those around us feel safe enough to speak and safe enough to listen. The psychological safety to which Edmondson urges us to aspire is key to unlocking the potential of individuals, their teams and even their businesses. Once achieved, this will have a transformative impact, both in and out of the workplace.