In this age of “cancel culture,” many people are reluctant to speak their minds for fear of being ridiculed, shamed, or even banished. A superior, holier-than-thou mindset seems to be the new favorite tool of bullies.

But more subtle versions have been seen in the workplace for as long as any of us can remember.

Here’s an example. A nuclear power plant was in the middle of a planned outage. That’s when the plant is temporarily shut down for routine maintenance. During an outage, a nuclear plant is of course not generating electricity and is therefore not making money. It’s spending money, lots of it. So it’s important to complete the outage safely and as quickly as possible.

In my role as a leadership consultant I was observing the beehive of activity in the outage control center, a large room with dozens of computers and closed-circuit TV screens for monitoring the work being done in the plant. The plant vice president walked into the room with a concerned expression on his face.

“What’s going on? ” I asked.

“We’ve got a problem.”

“Is it a safety issue? ” I inquired.

“No, it’s not a safety issue.”

At this point I realized he was probably using the word “safety” in reference to physical safety concerns like a radiation leak or an industrial accident. I, on the other hand, was talking about psychological safety.

But I just let the conversation unfold. The vice president explained that a crew had entered a room in the plant, set up scaffolding, and started dismantling equipment for inspection and, if needed, replacement. The first crew finished its shift, and the second crew entered the room to continue the work. At the end of the second shift a third crew came in and one of its workers immediately said, “Hey, this is the wrong room. We’re not scheduled to work on this equipment until the next outage twelve months from now.”

Oops.

I asked the vice president how this mistake would affect the schedule for this outage. He said it would delay the outage by at least 18 to 24 hours. In addition, there would be a ripple effect on the hundreds of supplemental workers who had been hired to help with the outage.

“What’s your company’s selling price for electricity these days? ” I asked.

“About $50 per megawatt.”

“Okay,” I said. “This nuclear plant features a 1,000-megawatt reactor. A thousand megawatts multiplied by $50 is $50,000 per hour. Multiply that by 24 hours and you get $1.2 million of lost income. Add to that the expense of keeping several hundred supplemental workers on site for an extra day and the cost jumps to well beyond $2 million.”

My friend didn’t like the explicit math, but he knew it was accurate.

“But you say it wasn’t a safety issue? ” I asked again.

“No, it had nothing to do with safety. It …” He paused, and then he got it. “Oh, yeah, it was a safety issue.”

“Tell me about it,” I invited.

The vice president explained that the first work team was led by a take-no-prisoners crew chief whose command-and-control style was feared by all. He made it clear that people should simply do what he told them and not ask any questions. A couple of guys on his team knew this was the wrong room and the wrong equipment, but they didn’t dare speak up. A similar situation existed with the second team—some people knew it was the wrong room and equipment, but their boss had long ago intimidated them into silence. The third crew was different. The crew chief could read the organization chart. He knew he was the boss, but he didn’t feel the need to remind people. His orientation toward his work mates went something like this: “Our job on this team is to help each other work smarter. The only way to do that is to challenge each other’s thinking. I’ll challenge your thinking and I expect you to challenge mine.” So in that kind of environment it was easy for a member of this crew to say “Hey, this is the wrong room!”

Not every instance of conversational silence has a $2 million price tag. But the cumulative effect of such silence—reluctance or outright refusal to speak freely—adds up quickly. Let’s say you have ten smart people at a table and three of them don’t feel “safe” in speaking up. Not only do you not benefit from the “smarts” of the silent three, I suggest that you don’t have the full benefit of the other seven.

As you can see, psychological safety has important workplace benefits. And the lack of it can have serious consequences.

Nobody understands that better than Dr. Timothy R. Clark, founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, a leadership consulting and training organization.

Ranked as a global authority in senior executive development, strategic acceleration, and organizational change, Tim is the author of five books. His most recent offering is The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Many organizations seem to be jumping on the “diversity and inclusion” bandwagon. What do you see as the differentiators between just being politically correct and genuinely trying to accomplish something meaningful?

Tim Clark

Timothy R. Clark: It all goes back to intent. Nearly every organization has some effort, some program, some priority in the area of what we now call DEI, or diversity, equity, and inclusion. Unfortunately, many organizations approach it from a compliance rather than a commitment standpoint. They pay it lip service and check the box. In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, organizations have been stopped dead in their tracks.

The event was indeed tragic, but it’s the response and aftermath to the event that has shaken the foundations of our denial. The question isn’t are you and have you been doing something to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. The question is do you believe in what you are doing? Is your heart in it? Are you a true believer that we need to eliminate arbitrary distinctions based on the demographic and psychographic characteristics of human beings? Do you hold this truth to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal?

If you are a senior leader in an organization in 2020 and you believe in DEI to the marrow, then you will ensure that at least two things happen in your organization: First, your leaders must model inclusion. Second, you must hold anyone accountable who doesn’t do this. The success of any DEI effort hinges on these to things. And if you don’t do these two things, you haven’t crossed the line of conviction. Period.

Duncan: Employee “engagement”—which involves things like discretionary effort—is clearly an important factor in an organization’s success. You say an organization that expects employees to bring their whole selves to the workplace should engage the whole employee. What roles do “respect” and “permission” play in creating (and maintaining) high levels of engagement? (Please briefly explain the 4 stages in your model.)

Clark: Psychological safety is based on the intersection or fusion of two things: respect and permission. Without increasing levels of respect and permission, employees will not release their discretionary efforts. Why? Because they don’t feel safe.

Watch your own behavior. When you enter a new social setting, what’s the first thing you do? You do threat detection. All human beings engage in this subconscious process. We are scanning and monitoring the social dynamics to assess the level of personal risk. If it’s not safe, we withdraw into a defensive mode of performance. If it is safe, we move through four stages of psychological safety that each engage us at progressively higher levels.

  • Stage 1 is inclusion safety. It means we feel a sense of belonging, that we fit in.
  • Stage 2 is learner safety. This means we feel safe to engage in the learning process—asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, even making mistakes.
  • Stage 3 is contributor safety which allows us to contribute as a full member of the team to use what we have learned and make a difference.
  • Finally, stage 4 is challenger safety which means we feel safe to challenge the status quo. And you can do all of this without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

The bottom line is that if you want people to bring their whole selves to work, you better be ready to engage them through all four stages of psychological safety. Otherwise, you’re being disingenuous.

Duncan: You say there’s opportunity in calamity, and that a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic or social unrest liquefies the status quo. Please elaborate.

Clark: A crisis has a unique ability to knock the current state out of its orbit, to disrupt our equilibrium, or as I say liquefy the status quo. Because things have become fluid, we have an incredible opportunity to transform organizations. I studied organizational culture at Oxford and one hard fact that we learned is that organizations fossilize the status quo and it usually takes several years to recast an entire culture. The COVID 19 pandemic has given us a rare chance to accelerate that process because the status quo is already gone. We are in transition. The question is where we go from here. We either drift a long and let things happen or we get deliberate about it and design our future state.

Duncan: The prevalence of fear, you say, is the first sign of weak leadership. What are the most common telltale signs of fear in the workplace, and what steps can a leader take to replace fear with safety?

Clark: The telltale signs are the interpersonal indicators of engagement. Just walk into any meeting and you will see the habits, norms, instincts, and assumptions of the organization on display. Organizations always reveal the quality of the leaders in the expression of their norms. It’s impossible to hide it. If the patterns of interaction are formal, contrived, tense, forced, and reluctant, rest assured that you are swimming in fear. If they are fun, energetic, and risk-taking, you know that leaders set that tone.

Leaders can do a lot of things to drain fear out of the workplace. I’ll just mention two: First, invite your employees to challenge you. Insist on it. Second, prove that it’s safe to do that by acknowledging, welcoming, and valuing that dissent. Remember, the homogenization of thought is the enemy. The last thing you want is for people to agree with you and defer to your positional power. If they are doing that, you are not leading at all. You’re hiding behind title, position, and authority. That’s a cop out.

Duncan: “Behave until you believe” is a practice you advocate for overcoming bias and granting inclusion to someone. Give us an example of how the works.

Clark: Here’s a simple example: When you’re talking to someone, face them with your whole body. It communicates more respect and allows you to listen better for comprehension. Now that’s the theory based on sociometric research. But don’t take my word for it. Go do it and see if it works. That’s the principle. Apply principles to verify and validate them.

Duncan: The “leader as oracle” model doesn’t work well in today’s world. How can leaders help create a learning environment that nurtures people’s curiosity and motivation?

Clark: The leader as oracle mindset is based on an industrial age notion that the leader has the answers. The leader is an oracle. Now you may have some answers, but in a highly dynamic environment, your answers become obsolete, so you lead by leading your team in the learning and adaptation process, not in being the repository of answers. How do you do this? Through inquiry. Lead through questions more than answers. Shut up and listen. It actually works.

Duncan: How does the “tell-to-ask” ratio affect a leader’s ability to create what you call contributor safety?

Clark: It goes back to what I just said: If you tell, tell, tell, at some point, you actually block the learning and development of your people. You are depriving them of doing the critical thinking to figure things out, to solve problems, to discover solutions. So move to the ask end of the coaching continuum. Draw out your people with questions which is a way of giving them the autonomy they need to think and act.

Duncan: Effective leaders, you say, offer cover in exchange for candor. What does that look like in terms of observable behavior?

Clark: To produce stage 4 Challenger Safety, the leader must provide air cover in exchange for candor. It starts with asking for feedback. Then you follow it by giving reassurance that your opinion and point of view matter. It looks like active listening. It looks like empathy. It looks like appreciation and encouragement to be candid again. Sometimes leaders ask for candid feedback, but they don’t really want it. That’s not honest and people can smell that dishonest intent. If you really want the candor, provide the air cover. It’s that simple.

Duncan: To help foster honest and vigorous discussion, you advocate assigning a team member to dissent. How does that work?

Clark: If you have a decision or course of action that you’re considering, take three of your team members and say, “I am assigning you to be our loyal opposition. Your job is to tell us what’s wrong with this idea, decision, or proposed course of action. Why is it a dumb idea? Where is it flawed?

When you replace personal risk with institutional permission, what out! People will take the assignment seriously and you will immediately begin to see a healthier norm emerge on your team.

Duncan: How does dissent contribute to innovation?

Clark: Simple. Innovation is, by definition, based on disrupting the status quo. That means we dissent from the way we do things now.

Duncan: You tell people that it’s not expensive to be themselves. How does that idea relate to psychological safety?

Clark: This is stage 1, inclusion safety. If it’s socially, emotionally, politically, or economically expensive to be yourself, you won’t be. Why? Because research shows that fear changes behavior. The foundation of psychological safety is inclusion—the belief that you are free and able to be yourself. If people feel it’s not expensive to be themselves, watch out. That’s when you will unleash them!

Rodger Dean Duncan
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