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Psychological safety, although not an entirely new concept, has recently gained traction in the inclusion, diversity and leadership space. Amy Edmondson coined the term in the 1990s to describe, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (Edmondson, 1999, p.350). Said another way, psychological safety refers to feeling safe to speak up, make mistakes, be oneself without fear of punishment, judgement or consequence from others. When an organisation truly embraces psychological safety, the benefits are extensive.
Research and multiple case studies have found psychological safety to be one of the primary contributing factors to a high performing team’s success. For example, in the case of Google, their famous 2015 study found psychological safety was the most powerful predictor of team performance - above other factors such as knowledge, skills and capability (re:Work, 2015). So given the importance of psychological safety, what can leaders do to build this in their own teams?
We spoke with Paul Lee, General Manager at Gilead Sciences in Korea, who shared some of his key insights relating to his personal experience with psychological safety at Gilead. Currently based back in his native Korea, Paul has lived, studied and worked all over the world, including Canada, USA, Singapore and Taiwan, providing him with unique multicultural influences and a deep appreciation of the value of inclusion and diversity in the workplace. He shares some of the tactics he is trialing to encourage people to speak up in a culture known for deference to hierarchy, such as rotating the chairing of meetings and demonstrating personal vulnerability.
1. What is prompting your interest in psychological safety?
Paul: Since last year, I have been collaborating with Deloitte and Juliet Bourke on an inclusive leadership journey for Gilead Sciences and its leaders. Being part of this journey sparked my interest in psychological safety as it is an important aspect of inclusive leadership. I believe that if an employee feels psychologically safe, they will contribute to a higher level of performance and feel less stressed leading to greater innovation. Employees will be able to realise their full potential, which I think as leaders, should be our ultimate goal.
2. In your own words, how would you describe “psychological safety”?
Paul: To me, psychological safety is about being able to speak up. It is about people feeling comfortable to voice their opinions in the workplace across all settings. What’s interesting is that in Korea we have an old saying that when colleagues have dinner/drinks, they are typically more comfortable sharing and expressing their opinions. To me psychological safety is about tapping into this freedom to express thoughts and expanding to include in the workplace context without the need for a relaxed, informal environment where drinks/meals are involved - that’s my ultimate goal!
3. What are some examples of challenges to psychological safety in a culture like Korea?
Paul: In Korea, one meaning of the word “different” is wrong. Nationally, we have a culture that lends itself towards conforming with the norm rather than being different or speaking out. From my understanding, Korea also tends to consistently rank towards the bottom of worldwide inclusion and diversity surveys for leadership gender ratios, LGBTIQ inclusion, and embracing diversity overall. Trying to shift this ingrained national culture has been a challenge at Gilead but we have made some great progress – although not as much as I would like – in empowering our people to share their thoughts and opinions openly in the workplace. I think in part, being a multinational organisation has really helped and this has led to other local Korean organisations seeing us as role models in this space. For example, by way of female representation at leadership level – six out of nine (67%) members of our senior leadership team are female. This is representative of our broader workforce (63% female), well above most Korean organisations, particularly at the senior levels.
4. What interventions are you trying to increase psychological safety?
Paul: Some of the things I am trialing at Gilead is changing the way we chair our leadership meetings. Previously, I would chair all meetings and a few other members would contribute. Now we have a rotating chair where all members have a turn in this leadership role (regardless of their level) and this enables them to voice their ideas in a safe way. In addition, as a senior leader, I am currently working on refining my inclusion narrative and expressing myself more candidly through personal stories and showing greater vulnerability. Through this, I believe employees will feel more comfortable in speaking up. I also plan to be more explicit and direct with my messaging on the importance of psychological safety. I know Gilead employees conceptually understand what psychological safety is but understanding and practicing are two very different things. If I take a more direct approach, and develop a compelling narrative around how speaking up helps us all, I think this initiative will have greater buy-in and impact across Gilead.
5. What changes are you noticing?
Paul: Employees are starting to speak up more in the organisation and this cultural shift is noticeable, albeit gradual. I recently conducted an exit interview with one of our employees who commended us on establishing a culture where people had the freedom to speak up and challenge the norm, which was very encouraging to hear. I think if you look at the spectrum (of organisations in Korea), we are doing well but we are still not where I want to be. There have been times where if people had have spoken up, we could have resolved or prevented the issue – by being proactive instead of reactive.
6. What can line managers and senior leaders do differently tomorrow to develop more psychologically safe teams and workplaces?
Paul: Actively listen. I think that as leaders so often we feel that we need to be the ones speaking and setting the direction. However, we should be empowering our employees to speak up, actively listening to their ideas and taking action. It is not good enough to just acknowledge our people’s ideas. We need to actually put them into action and if not, explain the reasons why. We also should incentivise people to speak up. Employees need to see the value in contributing and sharing their thoughts. There is no one solution to people not speaking up. It is about taking action and role modelling the behaviour you want to see in your people. Little actions all add up and if people are witnessing leaders speak up, showing vulnerability and sharing personal stories, they will be more inclined to do the same.
For further information on this article, please contact Caitlin Gray or Paul Lee.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/15341_Readings/Group_Performance/Edmondson%20Psychological%20safety.pdf
Guide: Understand team effectiveness (n.d.). Retrieved 2 October 2019, from https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/