Let’s just think of a situation, at any type of environment, where we are at risk but only one of us is aware of it. That person, in fear of what the implications might be if they speak up, stays in silence. This is a dangerous silence.
According to Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization (2018), there is a threshold, a point at which people will speak up. Unfortunately, in most cases it is so much higher than what is optimal. So, what is it that’s stopping us from openly sharing our thoughts? Probably, a lack of psychological safety. This is the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking: that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. And its importance in our working environment is significant.
Let’s go back to the situation described in the beginning and give a bit more context: an employee is asked by his manager to carry out a difficult task. Now the employee knows that he’s not perfectly capable of implementing it, but in fear of risking his job or professional reputation, stays in silence. Instead, he finds ways to make it look like he’s managed to reach the goal, until it might have become a big risk for the company.
This lack of psychological safety has invited highly risky behavior that could harm the organization’s wider goal. If we want to have high-performing teams, we should facilitate an empathetic environment built on a sense of trust.
Think of your team or wider working environment: do you all feel comfortable asking questions, admitting mistakes, offering ideas or challenging norms?