People@Work

Working without fear

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 29, 2019

Room for candour Psychological safety entails creating an environment where employees feel bold enough to speak up and share views   -  LiudmylaSupynska

Organisations that invest in psychological safety extract the best work from their employees

In her book The Fearless Organisation, Harvard Business School professor Amy C Edmondson talks about psychological safety in the workplace and how it can lead to better decision-making.

She also says this enables the entire organisation to take up its performance a notch or two higher.

Essentially, psychological safety entails creating an environment where employees feel bold enough to speak up and share their views candidly.

Edmondson first started studying psychological safety at the workplace in the late 1990s. Since then, she has done a vast body of research, especially among pharma companies, hospitals, to show how companies where there is psychological safety tend to thrive. While many organisations may believe they are open and easygoing and a good place to work, the reality may be different.

According to Edmondson, in organisations that are hierarchical with a lot of status differences, employees may tend to agree with their superiors, and not air their views, which may be different. Also, encouraging inclusion, diversity and a sense of belonging have a big role to play in psychological safety.

Given this significant research, a growing number of organisations globally have been putting in place programmes to improve psychological safety at the workplace.

Customised locally

Take pharma major Eli Lilly, which has introduced psychological safety-scenario based interactive sessions — Make It Safe to Thrive — across all its offices. The objective of the programme is to identify, highlight and reduce behaviours that can build and compromise psychological safety. Anant Garg, Director, Human Resources, Eli Lilly, describes how often people unknowingly compromise psychological safety by things like belittling someone’s contributions, cracking jokes on body types or slipping into the vernacular tongue when others who don’t understand the language are present.

It could also be through body language — turning one’s back on someone, for instance — or through micro-aggression (euphemism for bullying), or not allowing a junior to handle an assignment.

At the India operations, where Eli Lilly has 300 employees, the global programme was customised to take into account local behaviours.

Training first began with the leadership team and is now gradually being rolled out across all teams. “This entire initiative is part of our larger people strategy. We need very strong talent across the value chain and our core differentiator is our people strategy,” says Garg.

The two main pillars of Eli Lilly’s culture are engagement and inclusiveness.

Pyschological safety comes under the inclusiveness umbrella and is aimed at removing biases, judgemental behaviours and any form of differentiation.

The initiative began by having a dialogue with employees that resulted in listing of behaviours that lead to compromising psychological safety. Once the list was prepared, the next step was sensitisation and creating awareness.

Interestingly, Edmondson in her research also mentions that pharma companies where there is a high level of R&D activity and plenty of product failures face issues on that count. Fear of failure also compromises psychological safety, according to her, and she mentions how Eli Lilly has been addressing this by holding failure parties to honour scientific experiments that may not achieve desired results.

Published on August 29, 2019

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