Psychological safety—the feeling of security to speak freely and make mistakes without being harshly judged—has limitations to its usefulness in the workplace, according to new research by management professor Peter Cappelli and his colleagues.
“The idea behind psychological safety is that we should not fear ridicule or being put down in contexts where we are trying to learn or be creative. It was never meant to suggest that there should be no consequences for poor performance or not following the rules, nor was there much evidence that it was helpful in more routine jobs where creativity and learning is not a central activity,” Cappelli said, according to a post on the Knowledge at Wharton Website, a business journal from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
There have been times in my career when I wondered why I had to follow protocols or processes that didn’t make sense. I often considered those set ways of doing things to be a hindrance to creativity and progress. Would it be considered a psychologically unsafe workplace that made me feel that way? Cappelli seems to suggest that following rules, even those that are arcane, should not be considered a psychologically “unsafe” characteristic. Yet, if a workplace is overly structured and regimented, so that employees feel too stifled to be innovative, it doesn’t seem so different from workplaces in which an employee is afraid to speak up for fear of being harshly rejected.
Balancing Comfort with Accountability
Cappelli recommends “balancing comfort with accountability.” To have a workplace that is not just psychologically safe, but safe for innovation, the solution may be to allow for “coloring outside the lines” when there is a good reason for it. The employee who does things in their own unorthodox way with promising or downright great results should get a chance to plead their case before being reprimanded or punished—or even fired.
In a case with pleasing results achieved through a non-standard process, the employee has broken the rules, but has not necessarily made a mistake or violated company ethics. Maybe psychological safety, in addition to innovation, can best be safeguarded by having a process for evaluating broken rules. Instead of moving straight to the rebuke, the employee would get a chance to explain:
“Bob, I noticed you deviated from the process we put in place for onboarding a new client. Before documenting this, I wanted to give you a chance to explain why you did this. That client was a huge win for us and seems happy with us so far. As far as I can see, no harm has been done. However, my manager may ask me about this, and I want to be prepared to explain why you took the approach you did.”
That would be the psychologically safe way to confront an employee who went about business in a different way than usual with pleasing results.
Explain the Rules—and Allow Leeway
As a creative-minded person who likes to do things in her own way, a psychologically safe workplace makes allowances for me to do things in a way that makes sense to me. I feel psychologically unsafe when being asked to conform to rules and regulations that seem to have no rationale.
Another way to keep personalities like mine feeling psychologically safe while continuing to stoke innovation is to make sure all rules and regulations imposed on employees are fully explained and put into context. If you understand why you are being put through an onerous process to get your work done—and there is a great reason for it—you are less likely to feel constrained or abused by those rules and regulations.
Being part of an organization with many protocols that can seem arbitrary, and designed to do nothing more than torture you and make your life miserable, can result in a demoralized workforce. Psychological safety at its best protects the organization while allowing employees to feel they are free to come up with new approaches, and that when they aren’t, it’s ultimately for their own well-being.
How do you balance creating a psychologically safe workplace that encourages employees to think innovatively while adhering to company systems and standards?