Most of us want to look smart, capable and helpful at work. And for the most part, we’re going to do (or not do) what it takes to maintain that impression. Psychologists refer to this as impression management.
And as long as employee impression management happens in a psychologically safe work environment, organizations benefit. But when a culture of fear—of looking incompetent, being seen as negative or contrary or being punished for mistakes—dominates, an employee’s efforts to manage his or her impression, take a wrong turn.
My bright, middle-school-aged daughter hesitates to raise her hand in algebra class. At home as she’s struggling to do the homework, she admits, “Everyone else seems to understand.” Being the only one to ask will make her “look stupid.” Impression management.
At work, when employees intentionally don’t do things because they fear it will hurt their image, organizations lose. Workers stay silent about their own mistakes because they fear reprisal—after all, no one else seems to be making any. They keep innovative ideas to themselves because they fear being ignored or ridiculed. They don’t rock the boat of the status quo because they’ve been accused of being negative before. And they don’t question authority or colleagues’ ideas because they eventually stop caring.
Several years ago, psychological safety in the workplace was the topic of research conducted by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson. Edmondson maintains that employees must believe they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up. “Self-protection is a natural instinct when you join an unfamiliar team or start a challenging new project,” suggests Edmondson for hbr.org.
Her research showed that teams are stronger when they feel safe—to question, to be wrong, to admit weakness and to give input.
Her initial findings were unexpected. It appeared that the better teams in her study were actually making more mistakes. But further digging revealed that when there was a climate of openness, colleagues felt safe reporting and getting to the bottom of errors. (They weren’t making more. They were just admitting to more.) Thus, opening the door to fixing problems and ultimately reducing them.
Barbara Fredrickson, professor at the University of North Carolina concurs. “We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent when we feel safe.” Organizations where trust levels are high see this kind of openness and risk taking.
As a manager, how can you create a more trusting and psychologically safe work environment?
- Frame challenges as learning opportunities. Discuss the uncertainty of the project ahead and interconnectivity of the people on the team. Make it clear that you need all brains engaged as you move forward together.
- Admit your own weaknesses and fallibility. Place confidence in your team (the experts) and admit that you may miss things. This sends a message that you’re relying on your team and then do just that—delegate fully.
- Encourage your team to own mistakes. Discuss progress openly without placing blame. By conveying that small missteps are part of the process of solving a problem, you make it safe to search for the best solutions and learn as you go. You want your team to feel that reporting errors is not the same thing as poor performance.
- Model curiosity and a learning mindset by asking questions. When problems come up, talk about the behavior or results as an observation using neutral language. Explore the causes together. Be respectful and open to differing opinions.
- Be available to help. Create an environment where the team is learning together. Make yourself accessible to answer questions or discuss obstacles, options, etc. But in the interest of good delegating, let the team make decisions. (If this has not been the norm in the past, you may have to set up status meetings at first to get this open, honest discussion started.)
- Distinguish between psychological safety and accountability. Psychological safety does not mean “anything goes,” suggests Angus Ridgway for hrzone.com. “Psychological safety means no one, in the service of reaching performance goals, will be punished for small mistakes, or for asking for help.”
When workers are comfortable expressing themselves—when they believe they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, you have psychological safety … and accountable employees. Leaders can help build this culture by being inclusive and humble … and by encouraging their staff to speak up.