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Friday Thought Piece – Psychological Safety

My Friday thought articles have been focused around governance, agile leadership, organisational culture, ethical relationships and operational improvements. I have been in the educational landscape for over 20 years and I am an ex-apprentice from back in the very early 90’s, I have worked and consulted to many colleges, private providers, Awarding Organisations, Universities, the Crown Commercial Service and for a European Agency – Frontex (The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which is an agency of the European Union headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, tasked with border control of the European Schengen Area, in coordination with the border and coast guards of Schengen Area member states). 

One thing I have noticed in my journey is about actually ‘getting stuff done’ is about creating a positive organisational culture, where one can speak openly and freely to ensure continuous improvement and a journey to excellence in a safe environment without fear of retribution, to me a trusting workplace performs better. This links back to a question that I ask senior leaders in organisations – “What is the organisational culture like here, and how do you know what it is”? So, a few takeaways:

  • What is your organisational and learning culture?
  • How do you know, or is it something you as a leader assume?
  • What do your staff actually feel / think (by this I don’t mean conduct a survey, I mean you need to get to the heart of your culture)?

Culture and the cultural perspective have been linked to performance and competitive advantage, Peters and Waterman (1982) linked culture to a firm’s performance, whilst Barney (1986) proposed that culture was a source of competitive advantage. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice, it’s about creating an environment (culture) that can give candid feedback, openly admit to mistakes, and learn (that is develop, learner from the mistakes and each other, ergo creating a continuous improvement culture to truly develop). To me this kind of organisational culture is the key to unlocking peoples potential, growing by development and development of a culture that will ensure positive success for the whole organisation, this will be even more important as we start to come out of lockdown from COVID-19. 

I have witnessed in many institutions where staff are ‘scared’ to speak out or ask questions, this comes down to the organisational culture. As an example, I consulted to a training provider where if staff or the supply chain spoke out then they may have a ‘gagging order’ put on them, this immediately solves the problem for the Senior Leaders by not allowing anyone to speak out about concerns or issues within the workplace environment, essentially it was run by fear and intimidation. However, what it doesn’t do is solve the problem and create an environment where the organisation can develop and grow. You may be reading this and be thinking this isn’t true or I made it up, but this is a case from a provider in the market now. This tells me that the leadership is toxic and therefore the organisational culture is toxic, resulting in an organisation that is regressing and not progressing. If it truly focused its mindset to understanding the issues, then it would develop and grow. 

A further example – asking a basic question like “what’s the goal of this project?” might make you sound like you’re not focused or stupid, and it will therefore be easier to continue as you might be deemed as ignorant. However, this will result in a negative result of the project. 

In both examples’ leaders wield pressure in a developed culture that only wants to hear good news and only wants to feel they are right. 

Developing a positive organisational culture is the key, the need to learn how to invite participation from staff and how to respond positively. Creating a positive culture and safety where all can communicate openly and responsibly will improve risk management, creating an innovative workplace and develop into a constructive culture that will be beneficial for ALL. With this though, there is possibly one downside, it might reveal pretty calamitous issues inside your organisation, but without knowing this how can you grow?

To me when psychological safety is low the workplace becomes an empty zone and people will lose interest, people will show up at work, but their hearts and minds will be elsewhere. Therefore, it is important to recognise how psychological safety can be truly beneficial for all and will result in giving staff the permission (by creating empowerment) to speak openly about bad behaviour, challenge all echelons of an organisation and to be open about mistakes, thereby creating a positive culture to ensure positive success for all. 

Really look at yourself and your organisation and ask yourself some deep questions about the ethics and morals of the organisation or your organisation. Look at creating a positive culture where you as an organisation can develop and harness the ability for growth in the developing world (post pandemic, environment, ethics, and peoples deep thought approach to the organisation they work in or ‘just turn up to work’ (people do not want to be deemed ignorant, incompetent, or disruptive or being punished, people actually want to develop and thereby develop the organisation they work for).

A final thought as a takeaway, think about creating and promoting healthy conflict & challenge, ensure your staff have a voice and can challenge at all levels and think differently about creativity and culture. Develop the collective intelligence of your teams/staff as we are in an uncertain future and fast changing environment. 

Please contact Promote-ed if understanding this more is of interest, Promote-Ed has been created from a desire to make a difference to the education sector through promotion, the sharing of issues and campaigning for a positive change.

Patrick Tucker

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