On February 1, 2003, what was supposed to be one of the normal missions for NASA’s space shuttle Columbia turned catastrophic as 82 seconds into take off the shuttle exploded killing all seven astronauts on board.
The bodies of the crew members were only identified five years later through DNA. An investigation board determined that a large piece of foam fell from the shuttle’s external tank and breached the spacecraft wing.
This problem with foam had been known for years, and NASA came under intense scrutiny in Congress and in the media for allowing the situation to continue.
There are researches that have proven that several accidents could have been prevented if certain organisations were psychologically safe.
Amy Edmondson tells the story of the Columbia Shuttle disaster; “Eight days after witnessing ambiguous video footage, an engineer named Rodney Rocha, who was very deeply involved with the Columbia Shuttle at NASA in 2003, witnessed what looked to him like possibly a large piece of foam hitting the shuttle during launch.
He wasn’t sure whether that was what he had seen, but it was possible that is what he had seen. Eight days into the mission, there was a very large mission management team meeting. Maybe 53 people in the team were present at the meeting, and more senior people were discussing the problem, and Rodney Rocha did not speak up with his concern.”
Charlie Gibson in an ABC news interview asked the employee why he didn’t speak up. He said, “I just couldn’t do it.” “She,” referring to the senior manager, Linda Ham, who was at least two organisational levels above Rocha, “was way up here,” gesturing with his hand over his head, “and I was way down here,” gesturing with his hand near his lap.
This unsafe environment contributed significantly to the tragic accident that claimed the lives of seven astronauts eight days later. What is disturbing in this case is that the organisation had a very smart, very knowledgeable, very expert engineer, but not willing to speak up with a faltering concern in a management meeting because he felt it was psychologically unsafe to do so.
This is the tragedy of most organisations, you hire some of the finest minds only to silence them from doing their work because you create threatening environments for them.
You cannot hire people just for them to be listening to you. Right now, there are certain organisations that are going down, and it’s only the top management that is not knowing it simple because they have a choir telling them they are going up.
How safe is your workplace?
We take this for granted especially in the workplace. How safe is your organisation? Are people able to speak and make contributions without the prospect of being harangued, and possibly being arraigned before a disciplinary hearing? Are your employees and team members confident to make contributions or they have just settled and accepted that, it outside their remit though there is no written rule to this effect. This is psychological safety.
With no doubt, businesses over the years have invested so much money into strategy and team building sessions, even to the extent of hiring foreign talent on the area. What you notice is that most businesses despite coming up with seemingly well executed team building or strategy sessions, they still come back with little or no satisfactory results many times.
Why is it that businesses are failing to be effective in how they do their things? There are of course several reasons why businesses fail, but this week I want to look into one reason that is actually within the control of most businesses: psychological safety.
The future of many organisations will be secured when they develop and promote the culture of psychological safety. Why is psychological safety a culture? Because it is created. You do not have psychological safety in your organisation by accident, you actually have to develop it.
But what is psychological safety? “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” — Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson (1999). Dr Edmondson also defines psychological safety as “the assurance that one can speak up, offer ideas, point out problems, or deliver bad news without fear of retribution.” It therefore effectively relates to a person’s perspective on how threatening or rewarding it is to take interpersonal risks at work.
Does this sound familiar?
Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone seemed to “agree” with the “boss” on every point he or she was saying, but immediately after they leave the meeting they quickly rubbish everything?
You are not alone, this is the trend in several organisations, businesses, or even churches etc. today where the unwritten culture does not permit people to freely speak up their mind, concerns and their contribution towards the organisation. Why, because it is not psychologically safe to do so.
In many organisations employees are often made aware of the reality of dismissal should they speak out, and make better suggestions which seem to threaten the leadership. “So, and so was fired after he or she voiced concern about the way things were being done.”, this is what many would say. Why are people speaking behind your back? It’s because you have not empowered them to speak in front of you.
How psychologically safe
is your organisation?
Boeing 737 Max
Two Boeing 737 Max crashes in late 2018 and 2019 cost hundreds of people their lives, and threw the world into mourning. Focus, was quickly moved to an interrogation of why these tragedies had occurred and what could have been done to prevent them. Predictably, attention was on Boeing, Inc., the aircraft’s manufacturer.
The investigation looked at things like pilot error, mechanical issues, weather and other aspects of aviation safety. However, during the investigation the trajectory shifted to the question of whether the culture at Boeing could have contributed to the crashes began to emerge. Dr. Amy Edmondson highlighted that the organisational culture at Boeing was a “…textbook case of how the absence of psychological safety…can lead to disastrous results.”
“Would you put your family on a (737) MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”
“I’ll be shocked if the FAA passes this turd.”
“This is a joke. This airplane is ridiculous.”
The above words are taken from internal Boeing emails which display a pattern of employees complaining to one another, criticising Boeing leadership’s pervasive focus on aggressive production schedules and keeping costs down by avoiding things like additional pilot training and familiarisation on the 737 Max’s new and technologically complex avionics systems (Bloomberg).
Why were the employees speaking to each other instead of putting them through to management. The answer is simple; fear. They were afraid that they would be fired once the opportunity for layoffs arose. They had rather talk among themselves, and preserve their jobs.
Celebrate and embrace differences
True business leaders are not intimidated by difference, they treasure it. True business leaders don’t demonise difference, they embrace them. When someone thinks different than you in your organisation, that does not make them your enemy, it simply presents a person with a different way of viewing things.
Celebrate that! There is no growth in the absence of people thinking differently. You need a devil’s advocate in your organisation, so that you see things differently. Do not be celebrated into your demise by just hearing praise that will not improve or change your status quo. Praise has ruined more people than criticism has done.
What is my advice: be wary if people are always praising you. You are actually near your demise when you are only hearing praise.
Fostering a culture of psychological safety
Is your organisation psychologically safe? Are you the type of business leader who wants to be feared or who cannot be wrong? These questions need you to be thoroughly honest with yourself.
The two disasters profiled above clearly show the need for promoting a culture where team members feel safe to speak up with candour to disagree or point out problems is not only healthy for organisations, but it can be essential for thwarting negative outcomes with potentially disastrous results. Inevitably, leaders have a responsibility to promote this psychologically safe culture, and there are proven strategies to do that.
So how do we foster a culture of psychological safety? This is the part that I want to finish with. Creating a psychologically safe environment is the function of a leader. This demands will from the leader, and once you have it, the following things are key to creating this environment;
You need to allow team members to voice concerns and give each other feedback in the presence of all team members without fear of retribution.
You must create an environment where team members are able to acknowledge their own mistakes without being punished for disclosing those mistakes.
The team leader and all team members must create an environment that allows individual team members to take ownership of issues.
Stop blaming other people or the environment
Solicit input and opinions from the group.
Share information about personal and work style preferences, and encourage others to do the same.
Till we meet in the next instalment, stay safe and stay inspired!
Arthur Marara is a corporate law attorney, keynote speaker, corporate and personal branding speaker commanding the stage with his delightful humour, raw energy, and wealth of life experiences. He is a financial wellness expert and is passionate about addressing the issues of wellness, strategy and personal and professional development. Arthur is the author of “Toys for Adults” a thought provoking book on entrepreneurship, and “No one is Coming” a book that seeks to equip leaders to take charge. Send your feedback to [email protected] or Visit his website www.arthurmarara.com or contact him on WhatsApp: wa.me//263780055152 or call +263772467255.