Tune in to conversations about employee engagement and well-being and one phrase stands out: psychological safety. It’s clearly important…but what does this term actually mean?
LeaderFactor puts it simply. Psychological safety is an environment of “rewarded vulnerability”. When an organization fosters psychological safety, employees can make mistakes, give feedback, and voice disagreements without fearing backlash.
Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Management, Amy C. Edmondson, coined the term in 1999. Over twenty years later, psychological safety is a standard expectation of the workplace…and when it’s lacking, it drives up attrition and drives down employee engagement.
Worth noting: Black and multiracial employees are more likely than their white counterparts to report feeling lower levels of psychological safety and workplace belonging. An organization looking to improve its DEI efforts needs to foster a culture where employees can be themselves without risk.
Still, the notion of psychological safety can feel somewhat nebulous to measure. How can businesses tell if their efforts to establish psychological safety are successful? One sure sign is the presence of workplace dissent.
The Benefits of Employee Dissent
Dissent in the workplace probably sounds like something to avoid at all costs. There’s a stigma attached to disagreement and conflict in professional environments, and in some cases, that’s warranted. You might even equate employee dissent with less psychological safety.
But in reality, when employees are comfortable enough to share their ideas and offer alternative perspectives to the status quo, this is a sign of success.
(Note: dissent is different from dissension, which refers to negative behaviors like gossip and a general lack of professionalism. While dissent is a healthy practice, dissension should be addressed before it undermines company culture.)
Studies show that when leaders encourage employees to challenge ideas, people feel more accountable, engaged, and empowered. Result: they perform at higher levels.
Fun fact: McKinsey & Co. believes in the power of dissent so much that the obligation to “engage and dissent” is one of their core company values. It’s an ingredient for an “unrivaled environment of exceptional people”…people who are innovative, gritty, and fearless.
How to Foster a “Fearless” Organization
As good as this sounds, the facts speak to the difficulty of creating real and sustained psychological safety. About 70% of employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up about something that’s wrong in the workplace and/or voicing a subversive (albeit, beneficial) idea.
For dissent to flourish (along with trust, communication, diversity…the list goes on), organizations should invest time and attention into actively building psychological safety. And yes, that is a big, challenging goal, but let’s break it down into some actionable behaviors….
Be (really) present
Have you ever started to share something important with a colleague or friend only to realize they are staring deeply at a screen instead of you? Obvious: there’s a huge gap between being physically present and being really present (just look at the quiet quitting trend).
When someone is actively listening and engaged in conversation they inspire others to share more openly. Otherwise, when people feel they are speaking to a brick wall, they clam up and keep to themselves.
That’s a fundamental truth about human nature that business leaders should take to heart. Even when you’re bouncing between multiple meetings and conversations, bring your full and present attention to each interaction. You’ll inspire trust and higher levels of performance.
Traditional leadership styles value hierarchy. Translation: managers keep an emotional distance from employees as a way to assert power. I think we can all agree…that’s an outmoded approach that should have faded well before the pandemic.
According to Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus of Work and Organization Studies at MIT, a better option is valuing humility, honesty, and open communication. To be humble (especially as a leader) is to be brave, and that kind of vulnerability will empower others toward openness. It’s what you need to make your employees emboldened to contribute to workplace conversations.
One of the cornerstones of psychological safety is trust. And to establish trust, leaders should be both humble and transparent. This means sharing relevant information, giving and inviting feedback, and explaining the rationale behind decisions.
Fear is often rooted in uncertainty and the unknown (just think of any horror movie ever made), so when leaders practice transparency about workplace operations, employees naturally feel safer. They begin to see management as working with and for them, leading to a more unified workplace community and relationships.
Model employee dissent in action
If you simply tell your employees they are free to disagree with you, expect the proverbial crickets. However, modeling the behavior shows how serious you are and provides employees with a framework for what dissent looks like.
Forbes offers a great suggestion for modeling dissent. After you propose an idea, give your employees the following prompt: “before we leave this discussion, let’s list two reasons why this is a bad idea.”
This is an effective move for a few reasons…. For starters, you receive valuable feedback on potential problem areas with the idea that you may be too close to see. If your employees genuinely struggle to find fault with it, you have affirmation you are on the right track.
But most importantly, you show your willingness to invite dissent in a clear and actionable way. Do that routinely and you may find employees feel more confident voicing (valuable) critique – not just to you, but in more intimately collaborative scenarios among colleagues.
Important to remember: expressing dissent is a potentially dangerous practice for some employees. At the wrong organization, dissent endangers career advancement, and unfortunately — whether or not that is really true at your company — that’s the default assumption of employees.
It is incumbent on business leaders and people managers to start a mindset shift by positively reinforcing dissenting opinions — whether or not you agree with them When employees are rewarded for taking risks, fearlessness follows.
Gratitude can come in many forms, but a little goes a long way. A simple “thank you” can motivate people to work harder — and the act of expressing gratitude to others gives you a mental boost as well.
Bottom line: if there’s anything to fear, it’s not employee dissent…it’s silence. But due to stale perspectives and assumptions that still dominate the modern workplace, leadership must take daily action to signal to employees that their full selves are invited to work each day, including all their alternative perspectives, critiques, and new ideas.