Why Psychological Safety at Work is Good For Business

Monday, August 23 2021

In his bestseller Outliers, Malcom Gladwell observed that, “Korean Air had more crashes than any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 90’s.” He postulated that culture was a factor. Koreans were taught to respect authority and their elders, not to challenge them. While co-pilots had information crucial to flight safety, they hesitated to speak up or challenge the pilot, despite the cost.

That’s an extreme example of not having workplace psychological safety. Not risking saying what’s on your mind for fear of retaliation or embarrassment.

In one of my workshops with a leadership team dominated by an authoritarian owner, I encouraged new managers to invite their direct reports to identify ways the company could save money. The following meeting, they were excited to report that one long term employee shared an idea that would save the company about $270,000 a year and would cost nothing. When asked why he hadn’t shared it before, he replied that no one ever asked. Implicit in that response is that he didn’t feel safe sharing his idea.

It’s old school, but some leaders really don’t want their employees to think. However, your best ideas can come from front-line staff. Why wouldn’t you want to hear from those who are the face of your company to the public? And people will think, whether you want them to or not. If you’re not listening to their ideas, they will share them with others: co-workers, friends, customers, maybe your competitors.

Culture of Trust

It’s about a culture of trust: you trust them; they trust you. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and actions proving that transparency is welcomed and rewarded. In the absence of trust, problems pop up when you want to sell your company.

  • When do you tell employees you are considering retirement or selling? What are you afraid of?
  • What do employees think when they see consultants sniffing around asking for details of the business, but no mention of succession has been shared? In the absence of accurate knowledge, employees make stuff up and it’s usually worse than the truth.
  • How do you know when someone who might be critical to the successful sale of your business is considering retirement or changing jobs? This information needs to be factored into your strategy.

As the owner it’s up to you to lead the way. Be trustworthy. Tell the truth. Show it’s okay to make mistakes, come up with wonky ideas, and be resilient in your response when things go sideways. There are too many negatives to an unsafe culture in the workplace.