Why people don't speak up in teams or why psychological safety matters [3 min read]

It's Monday morning - you're at the weekly team get-together and everyone's focus is on the latest issue or problem to resolve. You've been doing the job for a while, have got some great ideas about how things could be improved in this area, burning for you to share them. How likely are you to speak up and share your ideas?

If you're in a working culture where you are encouraged to contribute, however diverse your ideas, it's likely there is trust between individual members of the team and managers or leaders.

If you don't feel able to speak up, you're not alone. 

One of the things I often see in my organisational work is a culture where team members will talk honestly amongst themselves, having a very clear point of view about some aspect of the role or team, but may not speak up about it more widely. When asked how things are by a manager, the employees say that all is well, usually because they believe that something unpleasant will happen if they speak honestly. They tell me a different tale in our work together, because they are able to speak freely without fear of judgement or consequence.

For someone to speak up in the workplace, there has to be a culture of psychological safety. Kahn* defines this as 'being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career'.

In psychologically safe teams, there is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Individuals in the team feel accepted and respected. I imagine also that individuals would feel safe to show their vulnerability* (taking the risk to speak up, sharing how they feel, even though there's no guarantee of the outcome, mutual and based on trust, not over-sharing) in a team where trust has been built over time.

Psychological safety is different from building trust. Trust is built incrementally, over time, and relates to the way one person views another, and the belief they have about that person.

Psychological safety is the belief about the group norm (does it feel okay to speak honestly in this group?), and its focus is on how one person thinks they might be viewed (if I speak up, will I lose my job, look stupid, or damage my reputation?).

There are important chemicals that help to create social bonds and loyalty (oxytocin, for example) released into the bloodstream when trust is present. These help to counteract the effects of feeling judged or criticised (which is likely to elicit the fight/fight response), so a physiological 'result', underpinning perceptions of judgement, acceptance and safety. Literally, a culture of trust helps to offset the negative effects of a stressful role.

As a leader, you're unlikely to get engagement, innovation or people willing to learn from their mistakes, without developing a healthy sense of psychological safety in your team.  To do that, you might need to look at how well you develop relationships that are built on a healthy foundation of mutual trust.

It's easier to develop it when there is good social cohesion - teams that have mutual liking between each of the members, who belong to a group they are proud of, doing tasks and work that are committed to, where they care about the group's outcomes and performance. Inviting employees to take part in decision-making can help too, as part of a 'participatory management' approach.

A final important idea to consider is one of accountability - setting boundaries and holding people accountable may be a lot more work than shaming and blaming - but it's one that is likely to help to build a healthier workplace. 

The starting point is asking yourself whether the culture you're working in, is one that consciously cultivates openness, inclusion, respect and trust, where people are encouraged to speak openly and held accountable for what they said they would do. If not, it's likely you'll have a workforce where people keep quiet, making it harder for them to be influenced. 

References:

Brown, B. (2012).  Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Gotham Press.

Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at WorkAcademy of Management Journal33 (4): 692–724.


The Daring Way™ is a 3 day workshop exploring topics like leadership, courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. Next open workshop 6,7,8 September at Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership, Penrith, Cumbria, or you can commission an in-house workshop or bespoke session for your organisation or team. For details see www.braveologist.co.uk/the-daring-way


If you liked this, please consider sharing it with others you think might appreciate reading it, too. Thanks. And - I'd love to know about your experience of speaking up in workplaces. Leave a comment below!