Psychological Safety Eats Culture (and Wellness) For Lunch

Posted by Joel Bennett on

"Being able to share ideas and engage meaningfully with coworkers in local teams, crews, and work groups is probably the most important driver of culture, engagement, performance and also personal well-being, all of these together.  If you had to do one thing to enhance all of those areas train work groups on team awareness to create, support, or enhance that sense of psychological safety."

Business writers have used a quote "culture eats strategy for lunch" (attributed to Peter Drucker) to convey that business or operational strategies will fail if they are not supported by the culture. When employee behaviors are guided by and inspired by vision, meaning, and purpose, then business plans have a greater chance of succeeding.

In parallel fashion, work culture is also cited as a critical component of successful workplace wellness programs. Such programs have various elements (health assessments, coaching, incentives, challenges) that will also be more effective if the work culture is healthy.

Google Discovers What Makes Teams Work

Research at Google suggests that culture and strategy are both served by a more fundamental attribute: psychological safety.  Psychological safety is generally defined as "a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up." Sample items often used to assess psychological safety are shown in the exhibit below.BLOG_APR_OWLS2

A February 28, 2016 article in New York Times Magazine showcased significant amount of research ("Project Aristotle") at Google to discover why some work teams performed so much better than others.  After looking at many different team attributes, Google discovered that psychological safety was, according to the lead research Julia Rosovsky, "far and away the most important" of the five team characteristics. These included dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

This finding echoes and validates the work of Abraham Maslow, who explained that the need for safety was a pre-requisite to further growth in his hierarchy of self-actualization. Also, we are talking about Google. Google was recently ranked #1 in Fortune's Great Places to Work study; the seventh time in the past 10 years. In 2015, Forbes ran its own national survey of 20,000 workers in the U.S.: How likely would you recommend your employer to someone else? Google was ranked number 1. And, in 2014, Google was ranked # 3 as the most enjoyable place to work based on Glassdoor's surveys.

Several conclusions might be drawn from the above facts. First, a company must be doing something right if it is willing to self-assess and distinguish its functional from dysfunctional teams... and then share the result with the rest of the world. By inference, not all teams at Google were working well and it was OK for their People Analytics department to understand this. Second, as Maslow suggested, employees need to feel safe with each other if they are also going to enjoy their work. Just look at the items in the exhibit and ask yourself if you would enjoy working on a team low on psychological safety. And third, judging by the success of Google, feeling safe and enjoying work are likely critical motivators for productivity and success.

Important Take-Aways

It is important to treat the "Aristotle Project" as a vivid test case or super-example of some familiar phenomena in workplace health and productivity. As such, three important principles can be drawn from this test case and they all have to do with workplace wellness. The first principle is that worker engagement--often seen as the necessary first step in running a successful wellness campaign--is driven by coworker relationships. In their 2011 to 2014 employee engagement surveys, the Society for Human Resource Management discovered that the top conditions for employee engagement were relationships with coworkers (consistently ranked the number one condition), the opportunity to use one's skills, and the relationship with one's immediate supervisor. It is fairly obvious that psychological safety is a necessary condition for a positive relationship with colleagues.

Secondly, worker health and productivity is best supported by strategic human resources, or the interdependent bundle of human resource activities that enhance employee skill, motivation, and opportunity. In their study of how HR practices influence organizational outcomes, researchers from Rutgers discovered that the best predictor of business financial performance was the "bundle" of HR practices that worked together to create high performance work systems. That is, those employees perform best who experience that the company gives them training to enhance skills AND opportunities to use those skills (e.g., through team work and job design) AND also the proper motivation (e.g., through sound performance appraisal, career development, and compensation).BLOG_APR_OWLS3 

Finally, a climate that supports psychological safety also supports employee health and well-being. In two separate work samples, researchers found psychological safety was related to fewer problems with psychological health.  In research study completed here at Organizational Wellness & Learning Systems, we used the same measure of psychological safety in a study of 200 workers from six different organizations.  We found that less safety correlated with a higher likelihood of reporting symptoms of depression, poor mood, and low energy.


Here is a quick way to summarize and remember the insights above:

First, provide training that creates an atmosphere of open dialogue and willingness to take risks.

Second, when creating HR systems to support employees, make sure to have alignment between diverse HR functions. Programs for selecting and training workers should talk with functions that motivate them and build them for future growth in the company.

Third, make sure that your wellness programs do not operate in a vacuum.  It is probably best to build a sense of psychological safety BEFORE being too aggressive with a wellness program. Alternatively, use a training--like OWLS Team Awareness or Team Resilience--to feed the "two birds" of wellness and team-building with "one crumb" and build psychological safety at the same time.

Finally, strategic alignment of wellness with business goals contributes to the creation of high performance organizations.  Attending to the psychological safety of your workforce makes good business sense.


Dr. Bennett will be speaking on this topic at the Art & Science of Health Promotion conference (April, 2016)

See Amy Edmonson’s recent TED talk:

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