Rewarding courage, not only compliance

Loads of research – prominently, the work of Amy Edmonson and her team – is bearing evidence to the importance of psychological safety. This important feature of a workplace is a prerequisite for innovation, team collaboration, quality work and a healthy workplace. It signifies a working environment where it is possible to state your opinion and talk about relevant ideas, where people feel free – or even compelled – to be open and honest.

The term “psychological safety” is becoming a term used almost as synonymous with trust, or with feeling personally confident to speak up. However, trust and confidence exist inside an individual person – psychological safety exists at the group or workplace level, and leadership’s efficiency in sustaining the conditions for psychological safety is crucial.

One example: encourage learning to avoid preventable mistakes, those that are due to lack of care and attention.  To “encourage” means to REWARD, not just refrain from shaming. People making preventable mistakes should not be praised for their inattention (obviously) but for their willingness to come forward and admitting the mistake, enabling a process improvement to make sure this does not happen again.

Another example: Intelligent mistakes, exploring new ground, fueled by a willingness to take risks and to experiment, should be straight-up rewarded, even if the desired results are not materializing. (And yes, results should be rewarded as well, that’s not the point).

Encouraging these behaviors will take a little bit of imagination but is totally doable. Modelling learning, asking for help as a leader, setting high standards and continuously talking about how to reach them, builds and sustains psychological safety where it belongs.

Psychological safety is not about being friendly all the time; it has nothing to do with being introvert or insecure, and it’s not about lowering the performance expectations. It is about removing the breaks that are holding people back.

Turning psychological safety into a matter of individual assertiveness bears resemblance to the way some companies deal with mental health and stress (“it’s personal”). But it’s not personal; sustaining psychological safety is a key requirement on contemporary leadership.

To “belong” or “fit in”

Some teams are developing “house rules” or team charters, to set out to desired tone and behaviors. A great, easy-to-implement process, where unspoken expectations and reservations can be brought to the surface.

Businesses develop company values, where employees’ feeling of being valued and welcome will frequently feature centrally. Sometimes, the employees are even mentioned as the most important thing for the company and encouraged to bring their “true self” to work.

Truly belonging to a team, rather than just fitting in, means being accepted and valued – even if you’re different. Having your special skills and capabilities appreciated, and your background, boundaries and priorities respected.

This first day of the Ramadan is a good occasion to think about operationalizing your team or company value of belonging – or encouraging your employees to bring their “true self to work”. For Ramadan participants, the daily routine changes radically, almost to an extent where day becomes night and vice versa. Some businesses respect that, allowing their employees to start and leave earlier in the day (this is the case at global service giant ISS) or to have shorter working hours.

Team or company values are void of meaning and credibility if they are not expressed as behaviors. As desired behaviors, values become actionable guideposts, not just posters in the reception area.

For team members to “belong” rather than ”fit in” you’ll need to look at how you address sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, etc. The potential discomfort from having such discussions in your team will be totally worthwhile.