Name Is “Psychological Safety” but My Friends Call Me Culture

As a Millennial, I spend most of my money on avocados and read a lot about tech and entrepreneurship. The latter has led me to stumble across something called “psychological safety,” the former, to a lifetime of over paying for produce.

After a quick Google search of the term, I saw that psychological safety is not a new concept, at least not brand new. It stems back to the late 90s, but didn’t hit the mainstream consciousness until the aforementioned Google uncovered the term in its quest to find the secret sauce of effective teams.

A psychologically safe climate is one in which people feel comfortable being themselves and expressing themselves without the fear of retribution

Psychological safety refers to the climate in which people operate, think and speak. A psychologically safe climate is one in which people feel comfortable being themselves and expressing themselves without the fear of retribution. This concept is directly applicable to the group dynamics of teams trying to spitball the next big thing; however, when we expand this view to our largest corporate group, the employee base, we start to see a lot of overlap with a true speak-up culture.

After two years of studying 180 teams, holding over 200 interviews, and categorizing and analyzing 250 team attributes, nothing in particular stood out among all the groups that Google studied. Some groups were friends outside of work, some only saw or talked to each other in meetings. Some were introverts, some were extroverts. There was no structural formula that led the researchers to conclusively say: Put this type of individual in charge of a group comprised of these type of individuals.

That is until they came across the civility, or lack thereof, that defined interactions. Who the individuals were in each group didn’t matter as much as how those individuals treated one another.

With that connection, Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to a team’s effectiveness.

5 Elements Needed for Effective Group Dynamics

Along with psychological safety, the team identified four other qualities that define the most effective teams: dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.

With minimal imagination, these correlate closely to how effective compliance programs create a company culture in which people are empowered to speak up.

  1. Psychological Safety: Do employees feel comfortable speaking up and free from the fear of retaliation when they do?
  2. Dependability: Are employees confident the organization will take their concerns seriously; will things get done the way they are told; and do things change when needed?
  3. Structure and Clarity: Do employees know how to access the whistleblower hotline and the various alternative reporting channels available to them? Just like in a team meeting, uncertainty about what to expect can stifle speaking up.
  4. Meaning: Do employees believe in the work they do and the organization enough to give it the benefit of the doubt? This requires employees to see incidents not as indicative of the workplace culture but instead as singular events that will be dealt with properly.
  5. Impact:  Do employees believe the actions they take will actually make a difference?

Equality in Distribution of Conversational Turn-taking

As reported by the New York Times, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College also took a stab at investigating effective group dynamics back in 2008. What Google identified as a climate of comfortable vulnerability, this team identified as proportional speaking time among individuals in a group.

The researchers found that if you have two groups, one with very smart smarties who overpower conversations, and one with average smarties who allow equal time for everyone to talk, the best results emerge from the collective thoughts of the average thinkers. As the study’s lead author Anita Woolley states: ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

For compliance programs, this says a lot about how to cultivate a culture of speaking up.

This was defined as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” It’s key to point out the “conversational” aspect of this turn-taking. This is not about forcing everyone around the table to say something. It’s about creating an environment in which everyone speaks equally and organically. This requires an environment of psychological safety, which lays the foundation for a conversational tone.

For group dynamics, this says a lot about how to increase performance. For compliance programs, this says a lot about how to cultivate a culture of speaking up. Effective teams who create products that disrupt industries are built around individuals who are comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable in front of their colleagues. Effective organizations create company cultures in which each individual feels safe raising their hand and saying, hey something's not right here.

Psychological Safety Tactics Repurposed to Drive a Speak-up Culture

The Harvard Business Review gives key examples for how to build a group dynamic of psychological safety. We can borrow a few and apply them to creating a culture that embraces and encourages employee reports.

 “Speak Human to Human

Up unto the point at which an employee becomes a whistleblower, they have already been hit with an emotional toll. Reporting the incident should not compound that emotional burden. Recognize that someone who has come forward might need an added dose of psychological safety to effectively participate in an investigation at an acceptable comfort level.

Anticipate Reactions & Plan Countermoves

This can be seen in the form of effective manager training. The mood in the middle can determine the level of psychological safety the larger employee base experiences. Managers should be trained on how to respond when an employee reports directly to them. The incident cannot be brushed off. It needs to be recorded and escalated appropriately. Managers should not just have an idea of what to do, but understand in detail how the interpersonal interaction should go with an employee, as well as the necessary steps to properly process the incident.

Ask for Feedback on Delivery”

Hotline reporting metrics, substantiation rates, and case closure times are essential to effectively run a whistleblower program. But they don’t always tell the whole story. Get honest feedback on what the experience was like for an employee to find a channel that they felt comfortable reporting on. Did they feel heard and taken seriously? How was their experience waiting to be followed up with from the compliance department? Really, what we’re getting after here is, “would you recommend us to a friend?” If the answer is no, there’s work to do.

“Measure Psychological Safety”

Your program most likely already performs an organizational culture assessment gathering responses from employees on how they feel about your incident management program. Evaluate these surveys to ensure you are truly getting honest indications on not just how employees view the incident management process, but how they actually use it. This could mean adding questions about employee/manager dynamics, employee/team dynamics and employee/organization dynamics.

It all must be traced back to the employee. As Jake Herway says in his article on psychological safety in Gallup, “Team and individual safety are both essential, but individual safety must come first in the process of building psychological safety.” This means a strong corporate culture is the sum of the big and small interpersonal interactions that define our working days.


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