Understanding Interpersonal Risk

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Picture this: A nurse, working the night shift in a busy urban hospital, notices that the dose for one patient's meds seems a little high. Fleetingly, she considers calling the doctor at home to check the order. Just as fleetingly, she recalls his disparaging comments about her abilities last time she called him at home. All but certain the dose is in fact fine, the patient is on an experimental protocol, after all, she grabs the drug from the cart and heads for the patient's bed.
Another one: A technician, working on the production line in a global high-tech company has an idea for substantially improving the line's efficiency, but he doesn't mention it to his boss. And one more: A senior executive, new to the top management team of a large consumer products company, has grave reservations about a planned takeover. New to the team and feeling like an outsider, he says nothing, because the other executives all seem enthusiastic about the plan.These are three episodes of silence when voice was needed.


You may think, "If I were in their shoes, "I wouldn't do that," or you may be aware, as I am, of just how often this happens in the modern workplace. Why? You see, no one wakes up in the morning and jumps out of bed, thinking, "I can't wait to get to work today, "to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, and negative!" No, in general, we prefer people to think we're smart, capable, helpful, and positive. We care what others think of us. We especially care what the boss thinks. The good news is, these risks are easy to manage.


Don't want to look ignorant, don't ask questions. Don't want to look incompetent, don't admit mistakes. Intrusive, don't offer ideas. Negative, just don't criticize the status quo. Social psychologists call this Impression Management. We do it without effort. We start to learn how sometime in grade school. By the time we're working adults, it's all but second nature. Have you ever held back on asking a question you really wanted to ask? You look around the room and no one else is asking. You think, "I guess I'm supposed to know this already.


"I'll figure it out later." Why does it matter? Impression Management behavior gets the job done.The self protection job, that is. But it does so at a cost. When we hold back, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning. And when people aren't asking questions,offering ideas, acknowledging failures, when they're not taking these small, interpersonal risks,their organizations face much bigger risks. Patients get harmed, business acquisitions fail.


But it's not always this way. In some unusual workplaces, we do let down our guard, we are willing to ask questions, we admit mistakes, we offer crazy ideas, we talk about failures. These workplaces have what I call Psychological Safety. Psychological Safety is a belief that "It's okay to be myself," that "I won't be humiliated or rejected "for speaking up with work-relevant thoughts, questions, "and even mistakes." These are the places where learning happens, where teaming happens.


These are the places where people do wake up in the morning, if not eager, at least fully prepared to take the interpersonal risks of learning and teaming. Over the last 20 years researchers, including me, have done dozens of studies showing greater learning, better performance, and even, in one study, lower patient mortality, as a result of having Psychological Safety in the workplace. Now Psychological Safety matters most when the work is complex, uncertain, and interdependent.

 

Think about your workplace. Does it have any of those qualities? Interdependence, uncertainty?And have you ever held back on asking a question or raising an idea? How psychologically safe is your current work environment?

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