If we want to make real, meaningful change at work, psychological safety is important, but it isn’t enough. We also need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Psychological safety is what gives us the confidence to share our ideas, opinions and beliefs with others without fear of punishment or humiliation. In the workplace it empowers us to offer suggestions or raise issues and concerns when we otherwise might keep quiet.
But for many of us, the idea of speaking up is an uncomfortable one. We may have been brought up to keep quiet, or to not make a fuss. We might be new to the organization, or a junior team member, and unsure whether it’s our place to say anything.
It may be more comfortable for us to stay quiet, but that’s not ideal.
The Learning Zone can be an uncomfortable place
When high psychological safety is balanced with high accountability, we’re in the Learning Zone. We have a growth mindset: a desire to learn, innovate and develop. This drive, coupled with the belief we are safe to say what we think, helps us overcome the discomfort of speaking up. We might offer the solution to a problem, highlight a flaw in a process, or propose a more efficient way of working. So it makes sense for organizations to create a work environment that encourages these contributions.
Consider the Andon Cord, part of the Toyota Production System often found on assembly lines. Anyone - no matter who they are or what their role is - has the right to pull the cord (or push the button) and stop the entire assembly line - for any reason. Once the problem is found and fixed, production can restart. It is obviously costly to halt production, but the rationale is that it is better to raise and resolve issues early to prevent bigger problems and higher costs down the line. People learn to feel safe taking this potentially expensive and understandably uncomfortable action to help the entire organization improve its processes and achieve its goals. But if they faced punishment for pulling the cord, the workplace would function very differently.
When there is no balance between psychological safety and accountability, people are either too anxious or too comfortable. In the anxiety zone, high accountability overshadows psychological safety and people will not speak up or take action for fear of negative consequences. In the comfort zone there isn’t enough accountability. The focus on psychological safety means we feel good, but we don’t take risks, innovate, learn lessons and grow. When people are too comfortable, they don’t feel the need to change - themselves, or the world around them.
Highway to the Learning Zone
A good way to signal the importance of speaking up is for leaders to explicitly ask for their team's thoughts and ideas.
- Listen to what people have to say and respond in a calm and rational manner, even if the feedback is negative. This reinforces the belief that it’s safe to say something, especially when it’s uncomfortable. Use feedback as a learning opportunity.
- Consider using asynchronous communication to gather non-urgent input. Platforms like email or online messaging give everyone a way to have their say, and let people take the time they need to get their thoughts in order.
- Use open feedback. When leaders and their teams can work together to solve problems, everyone benefits. When people hide behind anonymity: either because they’re too anxious to risk exposing their identity, or they feel too comfortable to bother, it’s very hard to move the organization into the Learning Zone.
- Model the desired behavior to your people. If someone brings up an issue, first acknowledge their input. If you don’t have the answer to the issue right away, say so. Show people that their input is valued - even if you can’t act on it immediately.
- Follow up where necessary. You might want to continue an online conversation face to face if appropriate. Even if there’s no further discussion required, showing people where their input has led to action or change is good reinforcement that encourages future contributions.
When our organizations commit to providing supportive environments, we can re-frame uncomfortable conversations and actions as a way to learn and grow. We’ll feel safe speaking up, and we’ll continue to innovate and stretch ourselves and our organization. And when it comes to pulling the Andon Cord (or the equivalent) we’ll learn to feel the fear and do it anyway.