Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.” As humans, many of us are uncomfortable with tension – particularly in the workplace, where people may be challenging the way thing are done and questioning existing practices, resulting in change. But, managed in the right way, tension can be a positive catalyst, sparking constructive ideas and leading to growth and cultural transformation. Employees knowing that they can challenge their leaders and peers on issues is not only good for individual and team morale, with people feeling that their concerns are heard, but can drive innovation, creativity, and productivity.
Traditionally, organisations with a recognised hierarchical structure such as those in defence have been perceived as less open to challenging the status quo. But all organisations must motivate and retain their people, achieve productivity targets and programme goals, and continuously innovate to meet changing requirements. To do this, they need a culture of equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I), one in which their people feel ‘psychologically safe’ to question current norms constructively, and to create those tensions that bring about positive change and growth.
Diversity delivering organisational goals
To deliver true ED&I there needs to be a culture of psychological safety throughout organisations – led from the top, but with buy-in from everyone. As part of our work with clients, we have developed and delivered an interactive training course, inspired by the work of psychological safety pioneer, Amy Edmondson, that helps both leaders and staff at all levels understand how this culture can be created. It covers behaviours, speech, body language, and the many ways in which these can be adapted to deliver a psychologically safe environment.
Training, however, should form part of a wider roadmap, a five-step plan to bring all employees on the psychological safety journey as described below:
Step 1: Leaders need to make it a priority, for both them and the organisation. Recognising the benefits it can offer – in helping to deliver organisational goals, find solutions faster, and improving customer satisfaction – they should lead from the front. The best leaders will admit their own fallibility but will be curious and interested in the subject, helping to drive the second step, engagement by others.
Step 2: An environment needs to be provided in which additional challenge can be made and ideas can be put forward. This can include building time into meetings, as well as making sure the right questions are asked and that everyone has the opportunity to contribute. Sometimes, this may involve a little pre-preparation by meeting facilitators – perhaps building confidence by forewarning individuals prior to the meeting that they will be asked to challenge on a subject in which they have expertise.
Step 3: Organisations should embrace failure, acknowledging that mistakes are an opportunity for growth and empowering sensible risk-taking. By openly sharing lessons learned – including those from leaders – they will encourage experimentation and innovation rather than stifling it.
Step 4: To enable innovative ideas to be captured effectively, it is important that each leader describes their preferred process for ‘how’ new ideas are presented to them, depending on their department’s goals. One leader may be happy with unrefined ‘blue sky’ concepts, another may prefer well-developed business cases and analyses.
Step 5: The final part of the roadmap is to ensure the longevity of psychological safety in the organisation – for this to succeed, it must be an ongoing process rather than a ‘one-off’ initiative. As new people join the organisation, the subject will need to be revisited, and its effectiveness regularly re-evaluated.
Busting the psychological safety myths
Within a psychologically safe environment there is of course – as previously outlined – the potential for tension. One ‘myth-buster’ about psychological safety: it is not about everyone being nice to each other. It is about radical candour, about being comfortable to challenge others on what they say and do. This is key within ED&I, where only by challenging behaviours can we encourage people to think about their beliefs and actions and how these affect others. When people share their differing views there are going to be disagreements, and it is crucial to understand how to constructively ‘disagree well’, rather than allowing differences of opinion to degenerate into arguments. To create a psychologically safe organisation, people must be helped to understand how to productively resolve conflicts and to disagree well, enabling them to focus on the issues they are discussing rather than taking the disagreement personally.
Psychological safety is not, it must further be stressed, about getting consensus. Decisions sometimes need to be made quickly, and leaders retain the authority to make these decisions and are accountable for their outcomes. But despite this caveat, a psychologically safe environment can ensure defence organisations become aware of any blind spots in their future planning. If people are too scared to ‘raise their head above the parapet’ to identify issues and question existing strategies or actions the end result could be potentially catastrophic – leading to organisational failure and collapse.
Firefighting – a failure to challenge
One personal story that illustrates the importance of psychological safety relates to my previous experience within a maritime setting. The ship I was on had an engine room fire, and I was part of the standing fire party sent to fight the fire, complete with safety equipment including breathing apparatus. The oxygen tank of one of the other team members wasn’t fully charged, despite having been checked by the Chief Petty Officer. In the absence of a psychologically safe environment, my colleague didn’t feel he could challenge this: he assumed that that he was wrong because the chief must be right. When we went down to fight the fire he almost ran out of oxygen, resulting in the entire fire party having to retreat from the fire earlier than planned. This is a tangible example of what can happen if people don’t feel psychologically safe to say that something is not right.
Not all situations requiring psychological safety are as safety critical of course, but the failure to question and challenge can have a negative effect on the delivery of projects and programmes – some of which may be business critical or may offer strategic or commercial advantage. Creating a psychologically safe organisation where people are happy, can voice their opinions and feel that their voices are heard is not only good for the individual, but also good for business.
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