Psychological Safety: Does Your Company Promote It?

Have you ever been in a meeting and been wary of speaking up because you were afraid you might lose status, face or even your job? I have. I was a member of the executive team of a large company and told by the head of HR that it was “safer” not to say anything in our weekly meetings – which were 4 hours long. It benefited me career-wise to keep quiet rather than to voice my opinion on any given topic. Companies such as this do not foster “psychological safety.”

What is psychological safety? A term coined by leadership guru Warren Bennis in the 1960s that means being able to give your opinion/add your thoughts without fear of reprisal. That term is still very applicable today. Many (most?) companies in the U.S. do not foster psychological safety. And how do I know? Because I have worked in some firms and coach many women who work in companies where only the “right” kind of contribution is the only contribution that is valued. Unfortunately for these organizations, they are losing out on input that could be very useful. They are not getting the bang for the buck out of their employees who are holding back due to a lack of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is at the heart of good leadership. Research shows that companies with a high degree of it do better financially – and no wonder! In the best of worlds, psychological safety starts at the top and is filtered down. However, even if your company as a whole does promote this concept, you can foster it yourself in a department or project that you lead. You can also practice it with your peers, making sure that you are not a deterrent to others’ being able to speak up.

Here is a short exercise for you: the next time you’re in a meeting at your company, make note of who speaks up and how they are treated when they do. Then, consider who doesn’t contribute and why you think they don’t. Understanding where your company fits on the “psychological safety scale” may be very important indeed.

By Erin Wolf

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