Earlier this week, Amy Edmondson posted a quote on LinkedIn which really made me think. “A crucial misconception is that psychological safety will naturally occur in any reasonably healthy workplace. In fact, psychologically safe work environments are rare. They require deliberate, consistent actions.“
Until this point, I had felt that most people would willingly choose to behave in a safe manner if they felt they had the freedom to do so, but her assertion that psychological safety is not a natural outcome for teams made me reconsider this assumption.
As I was considering the implications of the statement, it dawned on me that one of the contributing factors for this might be how we were educated and the impacts which our family, friends and other strong influencers had on us during our formative years.
As we were growing up if we were encouraged to speak up when we saw something wrong, to experiment, to challenge groupthink or the status quo, that might cause us to feel safer than someone who had a different experience.
Was healthy debate and constructive dissent tolerated at your dinner table when you were a teenager? How about in your high school or even college classrooms?
This is not always the case. Complying because of who demands it rather than the merit of what is being requested might be a lesson reinforced through repeated enforcement.
Such influences could affect not only how safe we feel when joining a new team but also the extent to which we create safe environments for others.
If we were encouraged to welcome and to respect differing perspectives, to avoid embarrassing or needlessly criticizing those who had made a mistake, to help those who were seeking to learn and to give a voice to those who felt they had none, then we’d be more likely to create safety.
But if our formative influences modeled Sensei Kreese’s doctrine of “We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak.” from The Karate Kid, we might have been conditioned to do the same. And that lesson might have been reinforced through the jobs we held early in our careers. Sales teams sometimes have deeply rooted “dog eat dog” culture. Work in that environment for any length of time and it will be hard to remain unaffected.
And this brings me to Master Yoda’s titular quote for this article. The muscle memory you have built up might be limiting your ability to feel safe and to create safety for others. Evolving won’t happen by accident, yet the costs of not doing so are significant.
“New blood joins this Earth
And quickly he’s subdued
Through constant pained disgrace
The young boy learns their rules” – Metallica, The Unforgiven
(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores)