When we talk about feeling ‘safe’ at work, what first comes to mind is our physical or functional safety. However, how safe do you feel psychologically? Do you feel safe to speak up, voice your opinions and ideas? Do you feel safe to make mistakes without fear of being ridiculed or punished? Do you feel safe (and empowered) to take risks? My hope is you can answer “yes” to these questions, but I know that’s often not the case.

We see this first hand when we are asked to either speak with executives or lead a workshop. If the organisation’s culture has a strong unwritten rule of not taking a risk, as many cultures do, the fear of making a mistake is palpable, which squashes creativity.

To make a culture more innovative, a workplace needs to allow its employees to feel safe to share their ideas. When team members feel this level of ‘psychological safety’, the workplace is said to have an inclusive culture.

To find out what makes workers feel ‘included’, Catalyst found that team members needed to feel that they ‘belonged’ in a company’s culture, but were also recognised for their ‘uniqueness’. When employees feel included at work, they are better team players and more likely to go above and beyond, suggesting new ideas and ways of getting work done which can boost team performance. They also reported increased innovation, which we found was linked specifically to how much their managers valued their ‘unique’ contributions.

An inclusive leader is able to support their team and make employees feel valued for their unique talents and perspectives without emphasising their differences so much that they feel alienated.

Four leadership behaviours cultivate the right conditions for inclusion and innovation, that we term the EACH behaviours, E is empowerment, A is accountability C is courage and H is humbleness.

A situation where an employee doesn’t feel psychologically ‘safe’ could result in them not feeling confident to suggest new ideas or ways of doing things for fear of being discredited or not supported by their colleagues. However, employees who feel ‘safe’ and who believe that their leaders and team members “have their backs” worry less about these interpersonal risks.

Organisations without an inclusive culture can face the opposite extreme and breed a climate of fear. Examples of these include the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal where employees were frightened, because of fear of reprisal, to tell senior management about failed emissions tests. However, this has cost the company dear. VW faced fines of £11 billion, has had to recall and modify millions of millions of vehicles, which had the cheating software, and has suffered immeasurable brand damage.

This climate of fear of reprisal was also present in the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil spill in 2010. A month before the spill, a report on safety conditions found a widespread fear of reprisal for reporting employee mistakes that could undermine safety aboard the rig. “Only 46.3 per cent of participants felt that, if their actions led to a potentially risky situation (e.g., forgetting to do something, damaging equipment, dropping an object from height), they could report it without any fear of reprisal,” the report stated.

Another example is the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 which killed seven crew members. At fault was NASA’s management culture that ignored safety issues including eight ‘missed opportunities’ to possibly prevent the accident. Ultimately the engineers’ voices were not listened to.

When employees feel psychologically safe in their workgroups, they are willing to take risks regardless of rank or status; will freely speak up about problems and tough issues; are confident that honest mistakes will not be held against them; and trust their teammates will not act in ways that would undermine their efforts or work.

Feeling safe to take risk is not only foundational to innovation but also to inform leadership so they can make the best decisions. The best leaders achieve great results by including diverse voices and creating a workplace culture that enables innovation.

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Notes:

  • The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image credit: Frightened, by .sarahwynne., under a CC-BY-NC-2.0 licence
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Allyson ZimmermannAllyson Zimmermann is Executive Director of Catalyst Europe leading the non-profit organisation’s strategy to create inclusive workplaces where women and all talent can advance.