I gave a talk yesterday at work on Psychological Safety (in a conference on Agility). There were some great questions as part of the talk, and I didn't get an opportunity to answer them all during the talk so I've written up my own answers to the questions below. They were generic enough that I felt it useful to share them more widely so I hope this is useful.

I qualify these by saying I'm not an expert at the subject. I care passionately about creating environments that are psychologically safe, and creating the conditions to enable that, but it's best to look to the experts in the field to really maximise your learning. These answers aren't short - but I want to ensure that everyone with interest in the subject has as much information and knowledge as possible. I've linked off to appropriate resources where applicable.

I have recently listened to the audio version of “The culture code” by Daniel Coyle. It contained many of the points you discussed. As it did not appear on your reading list, I wanted to double check if you consider it inferior to the books you mentioned or it was simply not mentioned for no specific reason.

For all, my reading list had:

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  • Focus on Self - Daring Greatly (Brené Brown). Fallibility and Vulnerability are some of the precursors to creating effective environments of trust, and Brené nails this.
  • Focus on Emotional Intelligence and Effective Communication - Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman), Radical Candor (Kim Scott), Crucial Conversations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler). Communicating with empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence is key, communication is hard, feedback is hard - nobody likes the "shit sandwich".
  • Focus on Effective Teams - Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni), Turn the Ship Around! (L David Marquet). These are both books that talk of all of the behaviours and patterns that psychological safety requires - trust, candor, conflict, accountability, etc.
  • Tie it all together - The Fearless Organisation (Amy Edmondson). This book ties together all of the above and more and really delves into the detail behind psychological safety.

My answer to the question:

It is indeed an awesome book, and you're right, it contains a lot of the content we discussed. It could have easily featured in the list, and fearless organisation definitely has aspects of overlap. as you will have seen from the slide though, there are also many more - Sydney Dekker on human error, Senge on learning organisations, Deming on organisational culture, and many more. I honed down on a few great books for the journey, but it'd be easy to recommend more. If at all useful, we maintain a list of 'book club' books for the book club I highlighted I ran, and you can see them here - I hope that there is some inspiration for folks there. For anyone who is interested in setting up their own book club, I would certainly be willing to chat.

I’m particularly interested in how to have a challenging, candid conversation while avoiding the immediate reaction that people feel criticized and thus not safe anymore. Isn’t it a very fine balance between giving honest and sometimes critical feedback and still avoiding people to retract? Do you have any tips how to give (or maybe examples how to not give) good feedback?

Feedback and crucial conversations are hard. I get them wrong probably as much as I get them right. I’ve found a few techniques for recovering from getting them wrong at least, which helps, but it is a rare creature that gets feedback and challenging conversations right every time. That said, candour relies upon a number of factors that absolutely can be learned:

  • Emotional intelligence - we all of us have the ability to become more emotionally intelligent. We can never control other peoples reactions, but we can control our own. Rarely is there a lion in the room, so our amygdala hijacks that happen during crucial conversations are no more than our lizard brains taking brief control. Emotional intelligence is a great pathway to mastering your own position on this. (see book club list above for some books on the subject)
  • Crucial conversations - this book really helped both in business, and in my life. My wife and I would sometimes struggle with differing communication styles to really get to the heart of concerns, and this book helped me massively. The book outlines a model that is both simple, and incredibly powerful. It also helps with the problem of people retracting from feedback.
  • Radical candor - I’m a huge fan of Kim Scott, and her model for radical candor (as a recovering ‘Ruinously Empathetic’ person) really helped. I always found I was caring personally around people, though not challenging directly. Arguably this is worse than challenging without caring! Again, a superb model to hone in on both relationships with those you give feedback to, and tools to effectively challenge.
  • Situation, Behaviour, Impact - there are many variations on this, and I quiet like Lara Hogan’s - it’s not a model I apply directly too much any more, though it was a great tool while I was still trying to get more confident in giving feedback.

Importantly in all feedback - seek permission to give it. You may have important feedback, but if the person isn’t ready to receive it, you are far more likely to get a bad reaction. “Hey, I have some feedback for you and I’d love a chance to chat through it” is a great opener.

What are the tools to deal with people that act as obstacles to change?

Humble inquiry and curiosity are great starting points. The section above on conversations is equally helpful here. Try to understand what their aversion is, what their concerns and fears are (A very deliberate question of “What fears do you have if we orchestrate this change?” can be useful), and why they are not embracing the change.

That said, there is an accountability element here. If you are stepping out of your comfort zone to try to orchestrate helpful change, and that is being met continually with obstacles (even after empathetic, humble query), there needs to be a pathway to accountability. If it’s not a manager who is blocking change but a peer, talk to your manager to help resolve. If it’s your manager, and you have tried repeatedly without good explanation to truly understand the aversion, you have to reach past them.

This will feel personal - it isn’t. For every voice that is silent when change receives friction like this, we are costing the business money, we are impacting culture, and we are doing ourselves a disservice.

On Servant Leadership, if the Customer is not abreast of Psychological safety, how will you then amplify the said behaviour? What do you advise?

The slide deck perhaps didn't help in this one, sorry. The customer is your greatest value as opposed to a key part in the servant leadership. They don't (pershaps shouldn't?) have to care about servant leadership, but it should be absolutely clear to the leaders and managers. This is not merely customer obsession, this is acknowledgement that without them, everything we do is pointless.

How do you overcome the challenges from the skeptics or the people who don’t think there’s time or moments for psychological themes in the workplace or simply meetings? / Considering how "soft" are the benefits of psychological safety, how do we best elaborate on these benefits in an organization seeking metrics?

I’d suggest (as Amy Edmondson does) turning this around. If you’re finding it difficult to measure how psychological safety can benefit, do you really want to see what the impact is if it’s not in place? A note to any managers who didn’t see the talk yesterday - when I asked

“Who here in their career has had an idea, a concern, or a question and chosen not to speak up because they were afraid?”

literally the whole room put their hands up. What if that concern was around a life? What if that question was around a potential opportunity for improvement? What if that idea was the next big thing?

Competitive advantage in the coming decade will not be measured on how effectively organisations manage a hierarchy of command and control, and will instead be gauged on empathy, compassion, emotional intelligence, psychological safety and culture.

We live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world. We are producing products to make patient lives better (and sometimes to save them) - we simply cannot afford to not take advantage of this just because it’s difficult to measure culture.

If your organisation has a culture of internal competition where teams don’t feel safe due to the permanent threat of redundancies, so each person has to avoid ‘stupid ideas’. How do we overcome this culture?

Organisations going through change will always have situations where there is risk of job loss. To those who are afraid of that, and the silent threat of it, I would ask which is worse for the outcomes? Sitting in silence, hiding bad news, and not bringing ideas is almost inevitably going to help lead to a situation where those people become more at threat. Silence will never generate good outcomes.

Good outcomes are never guaranteed - job losses happen during change. Bringing our whole selves to the problem is the only good way (selfishly for my own career!) that we can maximise the chances of adding value and thus avoiding a situation where I am made redundant.

This is, of course, an over simplification, and I agree with some of the feedback yesterday around transparency of communication, etc. but ultimately if we want to maximise our chances of success, the only effective way to do that is to bring our whole selves to the problem.

You mentioned about the low results for psychological safety from a survey. Where does the change need to come from? Who can be the catalyst for this to improve?

The easiest answer here would be to shout “leadership” and get the pitch forks out :) We absolutely should be holding our leaders to account for any practices that are unclear or not working, though it is to easy to place blame purely with leadership in these situations rather than addressing the core.

Why do we need transformation? Why are we not currently a learning organisation? Why do we have employees that cling to an old way of working rather than embracing a growth mindset and adapting to our new future? We have to ask ourselves all of these questions and more, and as highlighted, we have to address them, merely talking about them isn't enough.

Holding our leadership, our teams, and each other accountable and steering change is key - we can only be a succcess if we all get behind and own the improvement.

What would be your top message to leaders to help them create a culture of safety?

Watch my talk? 🤣 In all seriousness, I think there were a number of key components yesterday that really stood out for all talks:

  • Embrace servant or participative leadership - your teams are delivering value, you aren't - they are close to the customer, you aren't - you can multiply and amplify that value, but creating an environment where they can thrive is your primary driver
  • Behaviours over slogans - our values and expectations are meaningless if our behaviours don’t match them (this is true of us all) - our organisational culture is defined by the worst behaviours we allow to go unchallenged
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable - modelling vulnerability and fallibility is not comfortable. Especially if you are used to an organisational hierarchy and positional power (as we see in most enterprises). Modelling your own vulnerability with your teams is pivotal to creating behaviours and culture change.

There is no one easy answer, there are many small steps. Please get comfortable with all aspects of Psychological Safety and start a conversation from there.

What’s the best success story of applying psychological safety you have to share with us?

There are many, though as we highlighted during the talk, it doesn’t necessarily mean the organisation as a whole is Psychologically Safe.

  • Pixar - their brain trust is a superb example as we talked yesterday, and really models what effective psychological safety looks like (though as we also highlighted, psychological safety isn’t universal within Pixar)
  • Bridgewater Associates - given in Amy’s book (Ray Dalio owns this). He gave a TED talk on it (and indeed, it is part of the basis of his book ‘Principles
  • There are numerous examples from hospitals around higher performing teams (see Amy’s TED talk and papers prior to her 1999 paper).

It is, of course, much easier to get to examples of where it goes horribly wrong, but hopefully the above give some good material.

Most Importantly

Turn these into discussion with your team, turn them into real challenge, and then turn them into action!On