Creating Psychological Safety

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So what do you do to make sure the nurse calls, the technician shares his idea, or the executive expresses his concerns? Here are three simple things that leaders can do. First, frame the work as a learning challenge. By default we tend to see the work ahead as an execution challenge. That is, a job that just needs to be done, done to spec. Framing it as a learning challenge instead means from where we stand right now, we don't have a blueprint, we don't have a script.
We know where we want to get to, but we don't know exactly how to get there. Doing this means calling attention to uncertainty, and to interdependence. The path forward is unknowable. We need everyone's brain in the game. Doing this sets the rationale for input, for voice. Let me give you an example of what happens when leaders frame the work ahead as an execution challenge, when it should have been framed as a learning challenge. This was at a large telecommunications company that I'll refer to as TelCo.

In late 1999, they decided to launch the DSL technology at scale, in a very large metropolitan market. They told everybody the deadlines, they told everybody we're doing this now, they framed it as an execution challenge. Unfortunately, all the kinks weren't worked out yet. It needed to be framed as a learning challenge. I'll tell you what happened. It was a colossal customer service nightmare. Customer service ratings hovered in at about 13 percent. They failed at scale.

Instead, they needed to frame it as a learning challenge, to take small experiments, learn fastand then grow the process as they figured out how to do it well. The second thing leaders need to do to create psychological safety is acknowledge your own fallibility. It's not only the path ahead that's uncertain, it's you. Simple, small phrases like "I might miss something, "I need to hear from you" let others know that you know you're fallible. When people in positions of power do this funny things happen.

First, they seem more, not less, confident. And second, it makes it safe for others to speak up. In one study of Intensive Care Units, some of the Medical Directors did display humility. They went out of their way to let others know that they needed their input, that they didn't have all the answers and the results were phenomenal. These Units with humble leaders scored higher on psychological safety and they produced 18 percent greater improvement in morbidity and mortality for their patients than their counterparts.

The third thing that leaders need to do to create psychological safety is ask questions, show curiosity. This creates a requirement for speaking up. As Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google has said, "We run the company by questions, not by answers." In 1999 Julie Morath, who was the brand new Chief Operating Officer at Children's Hospital and Clinics in Minneapolis St Paul,launched an ambitious patient safety initiative. It was one of the country's first.
To do this, she gave speeches inside the organization about patient safety, she communicated the message of change through a variety of channels. She met one on one with several keyphysician leaders in the hospital. But still, many of the staff resisted the initiative. "Our patients are already safe", they said. Instead of using her position to advocate for change more forcefully, Morath asked questions instead. For example, she said "What was your experience this week "in the units, with your patients?".


"Was everything as safe as you would like it to be?" This simple inquiry transformed the dialogue. Morath went on to lead as many as 18 different focus groups. These allowed people to air their concerns and offer their ideas. In this way, they created psychological safety and they began a learning journey together. So again, think about your workplace. Which of these actions are you currently doing? And which of these do you need to start doing to create a psychologically safe environment?

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