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Psychological Safety – Do you feel safe to speak up at work?

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Culture and Performance expert Nick Tucker provides four practical strategies to unlock growth and innovation.

The competitive landscape is changing.

Everyone’s under threat, while organisations are struggling to innovate quickly enough to meet the growing expectations of their customers and shareholders. Executives need to future proof their businesses – yet are often fixed on the tried-and-tested solutions and ideas of the past.

The way you’ve ‘always done things’ will only get you so far.

Evidence of Australia lagging, was our recent performance in the Global Innovation Index (2018), where we ranked 20th. So exactly what caused our poor performance? The study identified low levels of business sophistication and technology outputs compared to other countries, effectively acting as a drag on innovation output.

Ideas and innovation aren’t a product of company processes; they come from your people. To accelerate growth and innovation, organisations need to generate more value out of their human capital. To achieve this, we need to cultivate cultural conditions that enable people to challenge the status quo, take risks and be vulnerable. In essence, we need to create Psychological Safety.

Psychological Safety has been linked to reduced stress and anxiety, increased work attendance, and increased innovation output. Despite this opportunity for competitive advantage, a recent icarestudy of Australian workers found that only 45% of high-income employees felt their workplace was psychologically safe.


These challenges highlight the question:

How can organisations proactively create psychological safety at work?

We propose four practical strategies to help your organisation build Psychological Safety and ultimately, accelerate growth and innovation:


1. Proactively design your Employee Experience (EX)

Innovation requires companies to be open to our diverse and disruptive ideas that may come from anyone – at any level. We Are Unity’s research into a leading logistics company found that individuals who felt safe to speak up were 153% more likely to exceed performance expectations than those who did not. The outcome of this was that we were able to target the specific levers of EX that put employees in the best position to perform.


2. Reset expectations about challenge

Employees need to speak up and own their opinions. Every person in your organisation has the right to understand why a decision was made – regardless of their level, tenure, experience or technical expertise. In studying the performance of a global FMCG, we found that teams were friendly and collaborative, but not safe to challenge each other over sales forecasts for fear of negatively impacting their relationships with colleagues. This in turn impacted a gross overestimation of business performance, adding significant pressure for the business to meet its performance expectations.

To change this, organisations need to reset employee expectations about what behaviours are required to deliver on its strategy and ultimately, hold employees accountable to these.


3. Build leadership muscle

Psychological Safety requires leaders to step outside of the comfort of well-entrenched hierarchical thinking, experience and expertise; to instead challenge themselves to not always speak first in meetings, to seek external input and also, open themselves up to being challenged. A leading telecommunications provider we worked with risked network failure because leaders would not share opinions with each other in fear of retribution.

To avoid these risks, start by building self-awareness. Define the observable behaviours that are holding you back, and build the leadership capability to open yourself and your people up to challenge – while also constructively challenging others.


4. Celebrate learning from failure

Psychological Safety requires employees to be willing to make, and also learn from mistakes. An entertainment provider went to the extreme of celebrating ‘fabulous f**k ups’ at meetings to ensure that mistakes and learnings are shared across the team. This reinforced the mantra that it’s okay to fail – so long as you learn from your experiences. This shift in mindset will help your organisation create the right conditions for innovation and growth.

Keeping up with the pace of disruption and proactively innovating isn’t going to happen naturally. It’s up to all of us in leadership positions to cultivate the environment that fosters and allows new ideas and opinions to thrive. Providing Psychological Safety is key to unlocking it for your entire organisation.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into how we can specifically help your organisation unlock innovation and growth, email nick.tucker@weareunity.com and book in a cuppa.

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May 29, 2019, We Are Unity