Why sustainable business transformations need psychological safety and 3 ways to develop it

Ciaran Armstrong

Sustainability Professional | Facilitator
Leadership Development
Oct 6, 2021
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When was the last time you were in a meeting and wanted to ask a question, propose or challenge an idea but for some reason, you didn’t?

Unless you were on mute, it’s possible that meeting lacked psychological safety.

This article provides 3 actionable agreements to develop psychological safety and explores why it has a key role to play in sustainable business transformations.

What is psychological safety?

According to Amy Edmondson, an expert on the topic, psychological safety refers to the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking and there is a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up” (Edmondson, 1999, p. 354). In essence, do I feel comfortable asking questions, voicing new ideas and developing new ‘ways of doing things’ in this team, business or organisation.

People working in psychologically safe environments are likely to share more ideas, experience richer discussions and spend more time solving problems, because less time is attributed to managing internal relations. Google’s ‘Project Aristotleconcurred with these findings, uncovering that psychological safety was the one thing their high performing teams had in common.

If psychological safety can produce such outcomes does it have a place in supporting businesses transform to more sustainable models?

A catalyst for innovation

The transition towards a sustainable future rests in the ability of people to exchange ideas, knowledge and information to reach innovative sustainable solutions.

Therefore, businesses are more likely to achieve this when people feel able and encouraged to challenge the status quo, ask questions and build on ideas.

In contrast, teams with low psychological safety are at risk of experiencing groupthink and failing to innovate, as the group chooses to preserve team harmony (on a surface level) at the expense of debating, questioning and building on ideas.

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, launched the ‘Braintrust’ when Toy Story 2 was on the verge of failure by bringing together smart and passionate people to give their candid feedback. Catmull argues the candid and collective wisdom of a group leads to better, more innovative, decisions; but you have to create an environment where people want to listen to each other first. The Braintrust is still used today, helping Pixar produce 19 commercially triumphant feature films

How could you apply the principle of the ‘Braintrust’ to help you innovate sustainable solutions?

Challenging underlying assumptions

Implementing innovative ideas is arguably the hardest part with up to 75% of organisational change attempts ending in failure. Businesses often prioritise technological and policy changes over the importance of transforming the mindset of their people.

The unquestioned underlying assumptions held by people, such as ‘sustainability costs more’ often cause organisational inertia and if psychological safety is low then these assumptions are less likely to be challenged. In contrast, if people feel able to question and contest deep-rooted assumptions, it can reduce resistance to change and facilitate the implementation of sustainable solutions.

In 1994, the late Ray Anderson set out to transform Interface, a global manufacturer of commercial flooring, by eliminating their negative environmental impacts which they successfully achieved in 2019. According to Erin Meezan, Interface’s VP and chief sustainability officer, “opening up the culture to tolerate failure, to encourage experimentation” was crucial in their success. While I am unable to assess the psychological safety of Interface, I’d guess their culture is synonymous with one that is psychologically safe and challenges assumptions.

How often are assumptions on sustainability openly challenged in your company?

3 agreements to put you on a pathway to psychological safety

Agreement 1 — Don’t interrupt

When was the last time you were in a meeting and no one interrupted each other? …

Nancy Kline, founder of Time to Think, argues that interruption degrades the quality of our independent thinking. Furthermore, as a leader by interrupting your sending subtle signals of ‘my thinking and ideas are more important,’ lowering the level of psychological safety in your team environment.

Agreement 2 — Don’t take anything personally

While not easy to do, if teams are to benefit from the outcomes of candid conversations, then the collective agreement to not take anything personally is crucial. Establish a consensus that conversations are task-oriented and about improving the performance of the group.

Following any rigorous discussion, debate or meeting, finish by acknowledging a quality you appreciate in each other. Giving and receiving appreciation (if done authentically) feels good and it’s a small act that goes a long way to preserving and developing psychological safety.

Agreement 3 — Share time

Give everyone time and opportunity to contribute. In meetings, this can be done through a series of open rounds (where everyone gets a chance to speak) followed by open discussions (a free-for-all). Knowing you will have time and an opportunity to contribute on a discussion (uninterrupted), creates a sense of ease and, contrary to popular belief, makes meetings run a lot quicker.

In Summary

It is often assumed that psychological safety is about being nice but has no place in the ‘hard-nosed’ world of business. In fairness, I can see how the term ‘psychological safety’ would give off that impression.

However, for the sake of striving to create an environment where difficult discussions occur openly (not behind backs), underlying assumptions are challenged, and the most innovative ideas are born, then call it whatever you want. At the end of the day it’s imperative for your business and its transformation to a sustainable future.