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psychological safety at work

Psychological Safety and Safe-to-Fail Experiments

A lot of companies talk about failing fast, but don’t actually create a culture of psychological safety to fail. This disconnect creates frustration for teams who want to test and learn and grow, but feel disempowered to actually do so. This isn’t just symptomatic of large organizations. I’ve seen this at startups and mid-sized companies as well. It’s not just a question of whether you have a culture of experimentation and entrepreneurial spirit. It’s about whether you have a safe environment for everyone in your organization.

The easier thing to tackle first is how to create safe-to-fail experiments that will be relatively less disruptive and also fulfill the desire to test and learn quickly.

It turns out, there are generally three rules of thumb to create Safe to Fail Experiments:

  1. Rally around a direction, not a destination. A destination is too narrow, whereas direction gives you a range to play inside.
  2. Experiment at the edges. Systems shift more easily at the edges than at the core. As you explore, you can grow the experiment bigger and bigger.
  3. Aim for the pragmatic. Think about what you can do within your span of control and can be operationalized fast. Be playful – people want to join fun and interesting experiments. And be pragmatic – start small, and don’t overly obsess the experience.

With all of this being said, it gets trickier when you really unpack the “safe” part of safe-to-fail. At this moment in time, psychological safety is more important than ever before as our physical and economic safety has been taken away from us.

In this McKinsey report and podcast on Leadership in a Time of Flux, there’s a healthy discussion between several experts about Psychological Safety and Leadership during these times.

Here are the things I took away from the discussion:

  1. Defining psychological safety: “Psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear.” Or put differently, it is defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
  2. Technology is a great servant but a bad master: Tools like Zoom are becoming essential for connectivity and productivity. But the flip side is the feeling of being “always on” without enough breaks and feeling completely drained by the end of the day. This energy drain creates a dread of being willing to engage with coworkers on emotional topics because it will be even more draining and compound over time. On top of work tools, scientific studies continue to show that social media and electronic media activate stress and anxiety in our brains. Creating tech breaks and Zoom-free times should become normalized during these times. It should feel safe for employees to create healthy boundaries from work and Zoom calls at your company.
  3. Create safety for vulnerable conversations: When you are in a position of power, you tend to be more infectious – either inflicting positive or negative feelings on others or giving or taking energy. Be honest, be vulnerable, and be open about how you’re experiencing this time. By doing this, you will make it safe for others to be human, be vulnerable, and not always be their best each day.
  4. Role model healthy behaviors: Role-modeling sustainable and healthy behaviors is important: logging off emails at a reasonable hour, taking breaks, not working too much over the weekend. If you’re preaching rest and recovery to your teams yet you aren’t practicing this, you’re implicitly sending a signal to your team that it’s not safe for them to truly unplug.
  5. Anchor on a shared purpose: One of the speakers shared that his research has shown how a shared vision or shared sense of purpose is the strongest predictor of organizational leadership effectiveness. The example he shares is a janitor who was told how his cleaning the floors at NASA helped get a man to the moon. That link may not have immediately been obvious to that employee, but with a little bit of help from leadership that person was able to make a connection to something bigger. When your teams are clear on the bigger purpose behind their work– not financial targets or finite goals — they are proven to be more open to ideas, more connected, and more engaged. When you’re able to truly create a team environment that is focused on the bigger picture, you create more psychological safety for experimentation towards that bigger cause because there is less focus on individual performance or competition.
  6. The end of the hero CEO: the group discusses that we may be experiencing a 30-year hangover to the rise of the hero CEO that grew up with outdated values and top-down mindset. This is a moment in time in which we are seeing a reframing of the leader’s role. The smart ones are asking themselves: “How do we capture and bring forward the very thin, perhaps, but very real positive aspects of this shared experience?” If you’re able to rally your teams behind a bigger purpose, the possibility for positive change, and a willingness to create psychological safety for people during this vulnerable and intense time… I believe you’ll be part of a powerful transformation in the future workplace.



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