Psychological Safety for Cultural Transformation

   Since 2018 in New Zealand, there have been 8 major organisations that have had such an unhealthy culture, their unacceptable behaviour towards their employees reached the media, resulting in the need for costly (and very public) reports being written and published.  In every case the need for a cultural transformation was called for, but how does a leadership do this?  If it was easy wouldn’t they have done this already and avoided the need to upset their people and be plastered all over the media?  Leading cultural change is a huge undertaking for any leadership team and especially for those that contributed to the previously reported poor culture.  It requires the need for many to change behaviours, some may even have their beliefs challenged and change is scary, as a race, humans don’t like change, our brains are wired to notice change, a safety mechanism that kept us alive in our hunter gatherer days. 

   To embed cultural change it is important to address the root causes of the problems the people are facing including the usual suspects like work place bullying, harassment, favouritism, sexist and racist behaviour.  It is common therefore to have multiple disciplinary procedures to deal with legacy issues, a great deal of effort gets used up creating more policies and procedures (to clarify the new way of behaving) and if diversity (or lack there of) is a problem then inevitably the leadership are then obliged to start tracking the numbers around that.  All this is fine (except for the diversity issue, quotas should never be used to track that, it will drive division and make your culture worse!) but what underpinned all these problems in the first place…a lack of psychological safety.

Psychological Safety

   Psychological safety starts with the need to belong to a tribe (in this case our work tribe), to feel safe around the people we work with, to protect and be protected by our colleagues so we have a threat free environment to perform at our best.  Our reward hormone oxytocin drives this behaviour, rewarding us for helping (it always feels good to help another!) and trusting others in our tribe.  We are wired to stick together when we have something in common that binds us, in our modern day work environment this is where strong clear company visions and values really work along side strong leaders that live those vision and values.

   Unfortunately holding a psychologically safe environment is a fragile balance, why, because the very same reward hormone, oxytocin, when under threat, will drive us to defensively aggressive behaviour, that is, I need to to this (job) to ensure I stay off the bosses radar (perceived threat), if that means that puts someone else in the firing line of the boss, that’s unfortunate, its not my intent but I need to stay safe. 

“To be psychologically safe means that leaders must create an environment where everyone can share ideas, criticisms and even make mistakes free of ridicule or persecution.”

   How do we overcome the need to constantly defend ourselves and drive division within our organisation?  Dr Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation demonstrates that any team needs to go through 4 stages before they can feel safe enough to share ideas, and even challenge the status quo.

Stage 1: Inclusion Safety

Inclusion safety feeds the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, you feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.

Stage 2: Learner Safety

Learner safety feeds the need to learn and grow. In this stage, you feel safe to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.

Stage 3: Contributor Safety

Contributor safety feeds the need to make a difference. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.

Stage 4: Challenger Safety

Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.

Cultural Transformation

   Before any cultural transformation can happen it is crucial that the leadership team embraces psychological safety, building that safe environment to help people embrace the changes that are required.  To help leaders cope with giving and receiving feedback no matter how difficult it maybe to hear.  To give everyone the confidence to put forward ideas that could help the transformation take place.  Ultimately to bring everyone within the organisation closer together, allowing them to feel part of the “work tribe” and take pride in what they do, knowing that their contribution is adding to the success and welfare of everyone else.  Now that’s a healthy culture, that’s psychological safety at its best!