Why You Should Champion Psychological Safety Today

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

When I joined my current employer, one of my first priorities was to identify and understand how I could support any psychological safety initiatives in the organisation. Since then, I have had multiple people comment on how nice it was of me to volunteer my time. Little do they know that I actually had very deliberate motives in doing so. Motives that, if recognised, would perhaps encourage other leaders in data and digital to sponsor similar initiatives.

For those of you who have not come across this term before, in a nutshell psychological safety entails having the confidence that you can safely take risks within a group. In other words, you know that your manager and your team support you in trying new things, potentially failing, and generally showing vulnerability. Research by Google has proven it is one of the most essential ingredients for high performing teams. This matters now more than ever.

It takes courage to step into the unknown, especially during a pandemic. Photo by Carolina Pimenta.

Firstly, transformations require psychological safety. Organisations are facing an unprecedented level of change across almost every aspect of their operations, from supply chain through to sales and customer service. Driving any type of transformation is challenging at the best of times, but vastly more so without an adequate degree of psychological safety, as Baer and Frese observed. Leaders of digital and data initiatives need to recognise this.

Secondly, psychological safety accelerates data-driven decisions. Fundamentally, data leaders need to convince their colleagues that relying on data is a better approach than going with gut instinct. The challenge is that this is an uncomfortable shift, as it goes directly against people's habits. Psychological safety can catalyse this change as it reassures people that even if they end up making mistakes, they will not be penalised for making them.

Thirdly, psychological safety facilitates collaboration. More than a year ago I wrote about how a lack of empathy can often be the hidden blocker to successfully delivering analytics initiatives. Similarly, a lack of psychological safety can complicate relationships between teams as employees refuse to communicate. After all, who knows how information might be used against them! Nurturing a culture of psychological safety can defuse these fears.

Finally, employees need psychological safety for their well-being. Whether at home or in the workplace, 2020 has arguably been the most challenging year in recent memory. While organisations are not able to shield employees from the effects of the global pandemic, they can promote a culture of psychological safety. This can provide an emotional safety net for their employees and help mitigate the daily pressures that they are exposed to.

Insert something profound about your actions casting shadows here. Photo by Matthew Ansley.

The unfortunate paradox is that while psychological safety is crucial in these times of change, work related stress can often undermine efforts to establish such a culture. Who has not come across examples of managers propagating a culture of fear, of employees being undermined by their colleagues, or of teams ostracising those that suggest the status quo needs changing. Instead of drawing closer together, in a crisis immature teams often fall apart.

At the risk of sounding preachy, every manager should be promoting psychological safety because it is the ethical thing to do. Yet morality aside, one cannot argue with the power of psychological safety in creating more agile, productive, and resilient employees. If there was ever a time for companies to wholehearted embrace this concept, this is it. So the next time you want to be selfish, consider becoming the executive sponsor for psychological safety.

– Ryan

People & Culture

Ryan den Rooijen

Chief Strategy Officer of Appsbroker CTS, the leading Google-dedicated consultancy. Formerly Chief Ecom & Data Officer.