psychological safety in the workplace

103: Why Psychological Safety is the Wrong Goal for Business. And bad for Democracy!

There has been an idea arising in print media and on-air conversations with pundits about the idea of creating safe work and learning places to create psychological safety. A physically safe space is imperative. As is a sexual harassment-free workplace by superiors over subordinates, which has become epidemic.

However, the recent spate of suggestions is to work to change how people are managed to erase the fear of recrimination when taking risks. This has not only an inappropriate objective but has a downside that is worse than the problem it is trying to solve. In some media pieces, this is referred to as ‘the coddling of the American Mind.”

The premise is that workers need a different way of being managed in a stress-free environment in order to take risks to innovate. Specifically, workers are fearful of powerful figures and it can create a negative environment that gives people no tolerance to explore and pursue uncertain ideas.

There is no question that fear in some workplaces can be the case. But the cause and resolution are based on an outdated understanding of how humans work, and the nature of culture and work systems that are needed to produce risk-taking. Particularly, I want to examine an article in Harvard Business Review August 24, 2017, High-performing teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Laura Delizonna.

Human needs for innovation in the workplace

First let’s look at what is it that a human being needs for innovation to happen (and democracy, as well) and how a manager can create this in their practice’s work design. It is not by protecting people, but by developing people and changing how we work. In my new book, The Regenerative Business, I propose there are three foundational capacities in terms of what it means to be human in a meaningful and contributing way. Especially for enlightened disruptive innovation. These three capacities are:

  1. Internal Locus of Control – a person has ableness to take full accountability for the effects their actions create in the world, as well as accept responsibility for our reactions, interpretations, and responses to events in our universe. External Locus of Control is the opposite. We blame others, feel powerless and a victim of our surroundings.
  2. External Considering — ableness to overcome self-centeredness and only seeing everything in terms of its effect on us. We take random things personally and interpret others action of their loyalty to us. We examine, primarily, to the effect of ourselves or world actions. To be engaged in external considering we work to become choiceful about the degree to which we can take others experiences into account, considering their world and people around us and see the benefit needed by communities and ecosystems. We may sacrifice for others.
  3. Personal Agency — Ableness that awakens intrinsic reflection to notice and manage the source of our personal agency; connecting ourselves beyond our supervisors and organizations; evoking inspiration and aspiration for opportunities to contribute to the world around us in a bigger way over time. We go beyond self-actualizing to systems actualizing; not just getting the most we can out of life but ensuring others can do that as well.

With external locus of control, we become victims in our mind, even when it is not expressed to those around us, and we blame others for our situation. Organizations and families do create conditions which foster or undermine this mental skill for internal locus of control and do not explicitly build that. They try to hire people with it, but it is needed for every role in a business, a family, and community. For democracy to work, people need to give up blaming other parties and institutions and take accountability for the system itself.

However, even this change is insufficient.

Expecting this locus not only for ourselves but also for others will leave us judging others ability to excise this capacity. Without development, circumstances castigate others as equally responsible for themselves and do not see it is the system that must be redesigned. We take no responsibility for the system, and therefore, not for others who suffer in them. This leaves us not caring for each other, instead, condemning them.

External considering can be experienced from as simple as being kind. If extended, we move to becoming empathic or even compassionate. The greatest level of external considering is that of caring enough to develop others capability to become self-managing in their own accountability and locus of control, as well as caring for and about others (external considering).

The tension of these two is core and cannot be whole with only one or the other.

It requires the resonance created by each capacity working in harmony with the other. This is the source of much national and political angst.

Finally, every business needs for each individual to exercise initiative to act in the face of a decline in the system’s health and that of the individual ability to thriving in it. The source if such agency emerges from an internal drive to serve the whole and to do so uniquely. All three are called for, not in balance, but in integration, as is true in a living, regenerative, systems for a business to support innovation and a society to work. The work design, management system, and human development processes greatly affect and influence the development and depth of each of these three human capacities. Most systems undermine their development and expressions. This idea that people need to be given psychological safety is one of these undermining ideas. But you don’t try to ameliorate by protecting the persons. You change the work design and the philosophy of management to grow and exercise these capacities. Details and case stories are found in The Regenerative Business.

Flaws in the HBR article’s Premise:

The article is based on the disproven “behavioral paradigm” that humans are determined by external events and so for them to function well, you change the external factors and circumstances, not develop the people. This is an idea from the early twentieth century which was based on the study of rats, not humans. Humanist psychology, and now neuroscience have negated the research, except for being triggered in “an undeveloped person who has not gained these skills. It is a matter of education and development. And even for those who have a shortfall of being too externally determined at this point in their life, it is possible to unlearn this and become able to work in the three capacities.

Businesses have a need to do this for themselves, and it will help families communities and society as they do so.

Achieving this is slowed down by ideas like the ameliorating ideas offered in this article. It furthers absolves management beliefs and practices, leaving work design and its underlying paradigms unexamined, in regard to how the ideas offered undermine the three core human capacities at every turn.

The hypothesis of the article is that you create trust by having managers protect employees from threat or fear of a threat. More useful is to the develop the capacity of co-creators to be self-managing in response to their own interpretations of others actions since you can never manage them all. Even though this article makes a list of all the possible ways to do so. If you add to that capability the connection directly to serving the market and customer. I.e. Know the effect of one’s work on the customer or consumer in use of the work, then a significant shift happens and by just being of service to the external market and not to a boss. The two outdated ideas combined. You work for a boss and they are responsible for how safe and trusting you feel, undermines all it means to be human.

The article is based on a study of innovation as Google and this “Psychological safety” conclusion is drawn. It missed not only what I point out here but maybe most important, that it is a culture which fosters the three human capacities in its culture. The study is giving credit to the wrong driver. Google, where I have been actively contributing for four years, is founded on the idea of finding your own job, defining how you will contribute, never giving excuses and taking on 10 X levels of projects. If Google shifts to following the ideas in this article they will quickly undermine the culture of internal locus of control, external considering and personal agency. Managers operating in a way to have people feel psychologically safe, because of managers actions, not the ableness of the organizational member, is not what gives them the culture of innovation.

Step by step myth busting of psychological safety

The authors provide six steps, each of which undermines their intention in spite of the argument they make. Each step keeps the control in the manager’s hands to ameliorate fear and dismisses the opportunity for real discovery and growth for each of them. All steps are designed to have the superior manage the other person’s reactivity and take responsibility for how they feel. They miss the real work to be done, which is developing the capacity of each of them to see their own reactions and interpretations. They are working like the lab worker in manipulating the rat in the maze with, supposedly, ‘high intentions’ but is really lowered effects of promoting an experience of external locus of control (the fear and management is out there) and internal considering (I need to pay attention to what threatens me and let them know on the survey).

It shifts both the manager and the worker away from each of the three core human capacities they need for innovation in business and we need in a democracy.

In each of these six steps, there are two archaic ideas that make the advice toxic. The first is the myth that changing people comes from the outside, by being managed and incentivized to do so. The behavioral worldview! And if you listen carefully, they are mostly manipulating people, trying to manage the upset or conflict with a device, instead of an authentic, systemically considered interaction as I propose.

The second toxic ideas are that the appropriate focus is between two people without the context of their effect on the stakeholders, particularly customers or consumers. The manager and the employee and that is the window best suited to view the intervention.

  1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.
    • Interpretation– They are positioning themselves relative to one another, rather than what the market suggests on this topic which would introduce a more meaningful force for external considering. Instead, they might each ask “What would our customer suggest for us to do”, thus fostering
    • The view for everyone to be on the same side of a challenge at the same time, all with the customer/consumer mindset in how to think through it. They are not collaborators in a solution for the two of them, but for the system. They are all in service of that which the business serves. Start the conversation there. What would the effect be of different choices on their stakeholders?
  2. Speak human to human.
    • Interpretation: What they mean is to humanize them rather than make them ‘the other.” And therefore, risk making their subordinate wrong. A decent start but again, with the people facing only one another for the framing of the conversation.
    • Alternative: engage in reflection in self-to-self mode. This means people talking to one and how they see the situation. They leave behind the role to role of boss and subordinate.
  3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.
    • Interpretation – The supervisor has to manage the mouse and help it get to the end of the maze. The manager does the ‘thinking’ for the person rather than build their capability to examine and discover ways to interpret.
  4. Replace blame with curiosity.
    • Interpretation – Be inauthentic by using a different artificial behavior. This avoids any opportunity to learn and engage in reflection
    • Replace blame with deep examination together, not the manager examining the worker acting as if they are curious. The idea is of both using an orderly way to discover and develop their own learning and ableness for the three human capacities
  5. Ask for feedback on your delivery (‘how did the manager do”).
    •  Interpretation. The interaction becomes about how well the manager is doing, not the result to the market and customers. Not of the mind of each of them and how each is engaging.
    • Stoping all feedback is one of the most toxic processes on the planet today. There is no delivery if there is no hierarchy. There is dialogue and a shared agreement on how they will explore together.
  6. Measure psychological safety.
    • Interpretation: Asking people if they feel safe is placing the responsibility fully on the manager’s behavior and requires no development of the people in the workplace to manage their own reactions, including the manager. They need to move each of them to self-accountability and not change the behavior of the manager as the lever. Surveys have their own problems since they are limited in what people can answer, in what that may mean, in how the survey gathers aggregate, how the human resource team interpreted the findings. CSI did a study inside DuPont and Colgate over a decade ago. In a room of natural work teams working together, we explored how well the final report by HR on a culture survey spoke to the answers they gave, the hope they had when answering and the specific responses they saw to the survey. Less than 37% in each case felt heard and understand. . Especially since so many of the questions on this nature of survey increasingly foster internal considering on the part of workers who assume the problem comes from the environment not the internal reaction of the worker which may or may not come from the manager. There is no development to see how the worker creators their own fear from interpretations of a manager’s intention and things that they can never manage for since inside the head of the worker. We will look at surveys an another blog
    • Skip surveys and do ongoing development, not training, in regard to the three core capacities and design work processes systems and structures to foster their development and expression

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Learn about designing work for human and business that gets and gives the best to each. The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work. Grow Human Potential. Achieve Extraordinary Results. By Carol Sanford. Nicholas Brealey/Hachette publishers.  September, 2017

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2 Responses to 103: Why Psychological Safety is the Wrong Goal for Business. And bad for Democracy!

  1. Avatar
    Mark Maggiora December 8, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

    Beautifully articulated Carol. I especially see merit in extending this application to the citizen acting within the community–and how so much of what we see in community development efforts by municipalities, counties and beyond is a presumption of the agencies responsibility to create a safe place. It follows closely your argument that when we fail to equip our citizens to be civic agents in creating great places to live, learn, work and play–we significantly compromise our ‘community-building’ capacity. To argue the agent is the responsible party simply simplifies a very complex and necessary integration of roles and responsibilities that deserve the iterative give and take ‘being’ in community demands for true, positive growth to occur at both the individual and agency scale, and ultimately for the community.
    PS–Patti & I sure miss the Spring Hill gatherings!

  2. Avatar
    carol sanford March 30, 2019 at 10:23 am #

    Mark, join my online groups

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