Zach Mercurio’s work and research has consistently uncovered an important truth about organizational psychological safety: Those who create and maintain a speak-up culture are better equipped to serve their purpose.
Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., is a goal-directed leadership and positive organizational development researcher and writer who helps leaders and organizations succeed. Mercurio’s work focuses on the practical application of research in organizations, particularly to help businesses become and stay purpose-driven. With the events of last year, Mercurio is more anxious than ever to help executives understand the importance of psychological safety and maintain a culture of speaking.
“The more people involved, the more people have their vote, the more an organization can really get serious about its purpose,” says Mercurio. “Indeed, innovation is a lagging indicator of psychological safety – you cannot pursue innovation without pursuing psychological safety first.”
What is psychological security?
Based on extensive research by Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmundson, psychological safety is the belief that if you express ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, you will not be punished or humiliated. Having psychological security in a team facilitates organizational learning, innovation and meaningfulness through the willing contribution of ideas and actions towards a common purpose.
But even more powerful is a story that Mercurio likes to share and that shows what happens when people cannot have their say. He was called to a group of maintenance workers who were responsible for cleaning windows in a large building complex. As is often the case when Mercurio receives a phone call, the supervisor essentially asked him to “fix” these workers – she believed they were unmotivated.
Instead, Mercurio went and spent time with and met the group of workers. He asked, if you were running this place what would the first thing you do to make it better?
“A woman who had been working there for five years got in touch almost immediately,” says Mercurio. “She said it has been her job every morning for the past five years to clean the windows on the first floor of this building. For five years, the sprinkler system goes on every afternoon at 3 p.m., splattering the downstairs windows, leaving the watermarks it spends cleaning every morning. She starts every day by cleaning up a preventable problem. ”
The woman said that during her first year at work, she told her manager that the sprinklers were misaligned and needed to be repaired. The supervisor told her this was not her problem – the sprinkler guys had to find out. From then on she bowed her head and did her job, feeling worthless and pointless.
It is tempting to hear stories like these and feel outraged at believing that something like this would never happen in your company. Mercurio warns of this. “Your organization has its own sprinkler problem,” he says. “You’ve probably missed innovation, wisdom, and feedback because someone thought it was pointless or too scared to speak up.”
Why don’t people speak
Psychological security is extremely fragile: it takes years to develop and seconds to break. Through repetitive everyday experiences, it is cultivated to be heard, not retaliate, and not be punished. Subtle responses such as eye rolls, tone of voice, and negative body language can compromise psychological safety and create an environment in which people are afraid to express themselves.
“Someone who is too afraid to speak out and feels powerless has learned helplessness, and that is an insidious force in organizations,” says Mercurio.
Based on Edmondson’s research on psychological safety, he names four reasons why people do not speak up:
- Reputational risk
- Risk of being perceived as ignorant
- Danger of being perceived as annoying
- Fear of failure
When people can and do raise their voices, these risks are reduced and lead to behaviors such as:
- Open feedback
According to Ingrid Nembhard, professor at Yale University, these behaviors lead to organizational learning that leads to innovation.
Skills to create and maintain a psychologically safe space
Mercurio’s work focuses on making psychological safety workable in organizations, and he has developed an entire system for creating and maintaining a speak-up culture. The work starts with the executives and it takes consistent, deliberate effort to maintain a psychologically safe space.
“All employees in the organization need to know how to create a space for others in which they can share their feedback, ideas and perspectives without fear,” says Mercurio. “However, because of their unique power, positional team leaders have the greatest impact on maintaining space.”
Psychological safety doesn’t start with a webinar or a consultant – you can’t establish it. Instead, Mercurio advises that leaders start creating the space in a small way. He recommends starting a regular check-in habit with your team. Starting small helps create space for low-risk vulnerability and develops self-esteem for individuals and teams. Daily or regular check-ins also give the leader and team a clear understanding of the emotions, mindsets, and energy that each person brings to the meeting and day. Mercurio offers the “red / yellow / green” tool, which he learned from Reboot’s executive coach Jerry Colonna, as a check-in tool to open the conversation.
“Have your team do a ‘red, yellow, green’ check-in every day to see where it is today,” says Mercurio. “Model that first. The goal is not to change people’s colors, but to better understand the situations in which these colors appear so that you as a manager can better recognize and react. “
It’s a seemingly small first step, but over time you will likely see positive changes. Regular, vulnerable check-in practice encourages team members to be more supportive of one another and encourages empathy. You will find that the colors change over time, which gives hope to your team and is an important reminder that feelings are fleeting and change over time.
“Cultivating psychological security is a skill that can be learned. It’s a set of habits that need to be implemented consistently, ”says Mercurio. “Managers who promote psychological safety purposely work to create the space for honest conversation by engaging in the emotional work to get the operational work done.”