In this excerpt from my fortnightly newsletter I offer some thoughts on how to cultivate a climate of psychological safety to positively impact the learning, innovation and growth culture of an organisation.
A climate of psychological safety is one in which people feel safe to take interpersonal risks by contributing their ideas, challenging the status quo, asking questions they don’t know the answers to, and admitting mistakes.
In my last newsletter, I asked the question ‘How psychologically safe does the climate in your team or organisation feel at the moment?’ and I offered you one simple way to positively increase levels of psychological safety in teams.
So what’s the connection between climate and culture?
Culture is what emerges from the accumulation of small actions, habits, and beliefs that influence behavioural norms and ways of thinking, creating the routines and traditions that pervade the organisation long after anyone can remember where they came from. You could think of these as the ‘below ground’ drivers of ways of learning, thinking and interpreting events within the organisation.
Climate, on the other hand, is the emotional ‘weather system’ you can feel the moment you walk into a team or business environment. It emerges from people’s attitudes and perceptions of events in a local set of relationships. Which means that it’s possible to influence climate by changing the events and experiences that inform those perceptions and attitudes.
And, since climate and culture feed off each other, it also means that leaders can cultivate cultures that champion learning, innovation and growth by making small consistent changes to raise levels of psychological safety across connected environments.
How do leaders build a learning culture?
Two of the 10 key dimensions to psychological safety that are in focus for today are Learn from Mistakes and Speak up and Share Ideas.
The research is clear: these leaders communicate what they don’t know as much as what they do know. They role model curiosity rather than blame, welcome questions and demonstrate a willingness (and provide a process) to learn from others. They acknowledge when things haven’t gone well and encourage open discussion.
As Margaret Heffernan puts it in her small but mighty Ted guide to creating strong company cultures, “Small changes – listening, asking questions, sharing information – alter beyond measure the ideas, insights and connections those systems are capable of producing. Each of these small things generates responses that influence the system itself”.
Replace blame with curiosity
Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, does this really well. You can read more on his refreshing approach to fostering honest dialogue in his team in this thought-provoking HBR article. While the original focus of his questions is on a one to one basis, I’ve adapted them and added a few others to support leaders in thinking about how they can adopt a learning mindset and engage people across the organisation on issues that need change or improvement.
First, role model transparency, curiosity and a learning mindset by bringing the issue to everyone’s attention. State the problem or unwanted outcome as an observation, and use factual, neutral language. For example, “In the past six months there has been an increase in project failures to meet deadlines and budgets.”
Engage people in an exploration. For example, “There are multiple factors at play – some we know and some we don’t know, and we would like to understand what these may be.”
Ask for solutions. Ask people directly, “What do you think needs to happen here?” and “How could leadership support change?”
Activate possibility thinking. The well-known ‘miracle question’ may elicit important intuitive insights: “Imagine that tonight when you are fast asleep a miracle occurs, and this problem goes away. When you wake up, what’s the first small sign that will tell you the problem has gone away? What else are you going to notice? What else?”
Look back to the future. If we’re being honest, we often have a sense of the eventual outcome of something long before we are prepared to admit it or feel safe to do so. These two questions may be a little painful, but they are brave questions to ask: “What did we know at the beginning that we were only prepared to admit after the mistake or problem occurred? And, “What do we know today about this problem (or project, or business area) that we will only admit to ourselves a year from now?”. Ouch.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
Ask yourself how often you take steps to promote a culture in which people feel safe to learn from mistakes, speak up and share ideas. Regardless of how you fare in your self-assessment, why not pick one of the ideas I’ve shared and commit to finding a moment to use it this week?
I wonder what conversations you might end up having and what learning may come from those?
I’d love to hear how else you are promoting psychologically safe climates and innovative learning cultures, so do drop me a line if you’d like to share any ideas.
Here’s to you and to great relationships in the workplace!
If you’d like to have a conversation about increasing the psychological safety of your team or organisation, click here to learn more about how our Psychological Safety accredited practitioners can support you.