Psychological Safety- A competitive advantage! – Vatt Vriksh Consultants

Psychological Safety- A competitive advantage!


Hey, How’s it going?

What do you hear in response to that question?  “Better than Ever!” Or “Don’t get me started! 

It’s a common question and your response can be quite telling about your emotional well-being at work! These are some of the responses I often get from my friends.

  • Yaaa, same old, busy… you know how it is!
  • Not bad!
  • Oh, don’t ask!
  • It’s so frustrating!
  • I don’t know how long I can take it!
  • Great! I am loving it!

Given the time we spend at work; you would want to get the last response as often as you can!

Research: Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has done her research in the field ofPsychological Safety at work. She says, in order for us to have highly engaged, high performing teams and in order for us to build a culture of innovation, we must first make our team environment psychologically safe. Read more below.

Symptoms: Your workplace may show signs of lack of psychological safety if you experience any of the below:

  • Hard to get information that you need to do your job
  • Blame games, Scapegoating
  • Increased corridor conversations, disruptive gossip
  • Bias in decision making: No or pale rationale for not being assigned to a special project, an important meeting, job promotion, mobility, bonus number!
  • Taking credit for other’s work or successes
  • Micromanaging
  • Going behind someone’s back to “steal” their client, project, area of work
  • Bad Behaviors: Being rude, shouting, yelling publicly, being ridiculed, alienated
  • Displays of offensive, derogatory or sexually explicit behaviour

Real Workplace Scenarios: Have you seen yourself or any person you know in any of these scenarios?

  • It’s my new manager. My colleague told me “Beware! She is a tough task master and a slave driver, I doubt you will get your 3 weeks leave for your wedding!” ………I am worried!
  • I got along like house on fire with my manager, my performance ratings had been top notch for last three years. Due to organisation restructuring she moved back to London. The new manager and I just don’t see eye to eye.  He is always finding faults with anything I do and favoring the other guy whose kids study in the same school as his. He is such a nitpicker and wants to change everything as if all me and my team did so far is useless. Btw I also heard that he doesn’t take feedback very well, so I better not open my mouth ………. I am really anxious about my future!
  • I have just hired a new team member! She is very talented, experienced and has lot of fresh ideas! However, I notice tension among her and a few tenured members of my team. She proposes an idea and they inevitably counter it by saying things like, “Oh we tried it, right? We went through this whole piece in 2010 and it didn’t work!” or “that’s a great idea, however in our culture, I doubt very much that it will fly!” I have also noticed they don’t invite her for lunch or coffee breaks. I can see she is disappointed, frustrated. The relatively junior team members are watching this “tennis match” play out during team meetings, not sure whose side to take. They actually like the freshness of her ideas but are scared to open their mouth in-front of their managers and risk rocking the boat!
  • We hired a promising campus hire, super excited and raring to go, buzzing with ideas! A dream employee for any manager! However, it’s only been a month and his manager has come to me twice, “This new kid is very immature and unrealistic! He went ahead and shared this idea with the other function head without even running it past me. He already is expecting to be promoted. Oh btw he wants to be added to that project run by CEO’s office. I can smell trouble; he is stepping out of line. We will have to manage his expectations! I see he is quite high maintenance and don’t know how long he will last.” Managers insecurity has set in big time as they feel challenged by the intellect and confidence of this “just out of campus kid”.
  • A senior person in the leadership team, who is quite patronizing, is seen often going for coffee and joking with junior women. He is influential at the firm and very close to the CEO. A very experienced senior woman has come into the team. She has made quite an impression and few friends already at senior levels. He sent her an inappropriate message about her looks and she reacted quite strongly against it. He is now playing politics and making her look bad in front of the CEO at every opportunity he gets. He has even got the CEO to agree to reduce her role and take a big piece of her role under his wing. His insecurity and fear has set in! The woman is under stress and finds the environment very difficult to work in. She is wondering if she made the right decision to join.

These are real incidences picked from different industries, different levels in organizations. All are triggered by a sense of insecurity leading to negative emotions, scarcity mindset, and you can see primal, reptilian brain kicked in with amygdala on full throttle arousing feelings of fear, anxiety, insecurity, anger, jealousy! Doesn’t sound like a place you and I would like to work at. But guess what, this phenomenon is commonplace at most workplaces, including Fortune 500.

Employee Experience: What experience does this create for the new manager, new employee, new campus kid or the super smart woman?

It slowly chips away their enthusiasm of sharing all the great ideas they were excited about. It makes them cautious and they start to slowly watch what they are saying, filter their message to suit the person in-front, not speak up even when they think their idea might be better than boss’s favorites, shy away from being bold and sharing their views in a leadership meeting as the boss may not approve of it and it will inevitably show up the review feedback. Eventually people are silenced in fear! Sounds familiar?

All these behaviours indicate that the employees are experiencing a workplace that’sNot psychologically safe. They find it difficult to be open, transparent, spontaneous, questioning and creative. People are afraid to make mistakes and always trying to prove a point, wanting to be right all the time. Innovation suffers, engagement takes a beating, hushed corridor conversations become common place, people become self-preserving, hoard information, take credit for their team’s work and so on. A toxic workplace culture sets in.

Feedback: How psychologically safe your work place is? Do you see these examples and symptoms come up in escalations, employee surveys or exit interviews? If you are tuned in you will certainly hear it from the grapevine! What are you doing about it?

Most of these are triggered by an intension of self-preservation in this competitive environment. As if it’s a jungle out there. Employees think that if they don’t do things to protect their self-interest, they will be taken out, be passé, in no time! One mistake and they are done! Fear of failure sets in! They are on the watch out all the time and weary of every move of the team member’s junior, senior or peer irrespective! Paranoia sets in!

Leadership sets the tone: Leaders say its ok to make a mistake or take your time to learn but how do we react when a mistake happens? Do we take time to coach and support the individual, understand what went wrong and how to prevent it in future or do we call and reprimand the person, take them off the project, ignore them next time you see them in the corridor or seal their fate with a performance improvement program, leaving a very demotivated individual who in that mental state is likely to make more mistakes? If they survived the feedback and took it in their stride they will get more cautious, toe the line, won’t experiment or come up with new ideas and stick to the beaten path. Rise to be ‘the average’ employee. Just do enough to stay afloat! Over a period of time it becomes the culture of the organization. Scary but true!

I am an eternal optimist and I know inherently people are well intentioned. They want to belong, contribute, do well and grow. They want to get sincere, honest, well-meaning feedback as well. No one in their right minds comes to work thinking, “Today, I am going to bring the place down! Be my worst self at work. I will make as many mistakes as I can, be rude to my colleagues and find ways to be difficult and argumentative.”

Inherently we all want to be accepted, respected, appreciated and valued! Yet in the business of our day jobs we forget to observe, listen and understand how our employees are experiencing the workplace.

Talent Management Systems: While the consciousness has been raised on this a lot over last few years by Tech companies primarily like Adobe, Google, Accenture, a lot of others still in their mindset are driven by scarcity mindset! Performance review bell-curves, ratings, narrow and biased selection criteria’s, stereotypes about leadership, women and other diverse groups still hold! These systems further alienate and demotivate potentially great employees.

Best Practices and more Research:

Great organizations recognize it and take action to create psychologically safe workplaces with strong Intentionality.

Google published a list of the five traits that its most successful teams share last year. First among them is “Psychological Safety.”

This topic was has been researched extensively by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, and her TEDx talk on the topic is much watch.

In the talk, she describes the experience that sparked her interest in psychological safety, or “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

As a grad student, she was studying medical teams at hospitals in order to find out what distinguished the best performing groups. She assumed she’d find that the top teams made the fewest medication errors.

To her surprise, she found exactly the opposite: Better performing teams seemed to be making more errors than worse performing ones.

At some point, she realized why: It wasn’t that the best teams were making the most errors, but that the best teams were admitting to errors and discussing them more often than other groups did. In other words, what distinguished the best performing teams waspsychological safety, which facilitated a “climate of openness.”

  1. Calls to Action: In conclusion, here are some best practices one can adopt to create a psychologically safe workplace


  1. Set the leadership tone: In order to build an open, transparent and safe workplace, leaders need to understand the price they are paying currently on engagement, productivity, innovation and attrition. A zero surprise culture is built when employees feel comfortable in bringing their vulnerabilities to the table without fear of negative consequences. That’s when timely escalations, ideation, innovation can happen.
  2. Review talent management systems: Limiting systems create limited opportunities only. Set high standards but open up your systems so everyone has a chance to to succeed. Set ambitious goals, train, coach and give feedback, measure people against those goals, reward them when they achieve those goals.
  3. Train leaders and managers to recognize symptoms and act upon them: All managers should know what psychological safety at workplace means and skills and behaviors to develop to create an inclusive workplace
  4. Reward and Reprimand: Encourage managers/leaders who are demonstrating role model behaviors, reward and recognize them. Equally important to call out those who do not demonstrate the right behaviors with real consequences to their promotion, pay and growth in the organization.


  1. Stay Hungry, stay foolish as Steve Job said! Keep learning, read, know your business, the latest market trends, adjust, adapt and learn a new skill, acquire knowledge every six months.
  2. Be known for an Expertize: There is no room for general managers. What’s your skill, what are you good at, what are you a “go to” person for?
  3. Hire talent that’s smarter than you! Takes guts, takes courage to do that! But in the end serves everyone well.
  4. All hands in: In your team meetings make sure everyone speaks without fear of consequences. Invite quiet ones to talk, manage over enthusiastic, self-styled experts, who dampen the rest carefully.
  5. Develop your Emotional Intelligence: helps in regulating your own emotions, understanding others and developing strong relationships and sponsorships

New or junior team members:

  1. Find Mentors: get yourself multiple informal mentors, seek their advice regularly
  2. Weekly meetings with manager: make sure you are meeting your manager regularly and keeping them abreast and seeking their advice to navigate some roadblocks
  3. Be a Learner and be seen as one: Ask questions to learn the new system, culture and decision making processes, understand current practices, what’s worked, what’s not, get your facts in place, do some historical research before suggesting a new idea. May seem like a lot of work but its needed to establish yourself as a credible team member, as a good learner, as a person on their side and not an outsider. This will build trust. Once trust is built, your ideas will be accepted with ease.
  4. Build Consensus: Learn the art of consensus building. Socialize your new idea one on one with key influencers, don’t forget to ask their inputs, make them part of your ideation, make them believe it’s their idea. Consolidate all views, share with your manager, get their inputs, advice (remember you are a learner). Now you are pretty ready to take it to the larger forum and you will see more heads nod..
  5. Share Credit: Give credit like you won Oscar. It may seem weird but people love to hear their names in the vote of thanks. Especially in-front of senior leadership. They will support you as they will not want to go against their own idea embedded in yours. Leadership will love you as you are already showing art of consensus building, teamwork and emotional maturity by sharing credit. It’s a win-win!

We all owe it to ourselves and our co-workers to build a psychologically safe place at work! Hopefully we will hear more of “I am loving it!” responses to, “Hey how are you doing?”


Running in the right direction! Are you?


Ardhnarishvara inspired Gender Parity

1 Comment

  1. I was looking up for info like this, finally I got it, thank you.

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