The Challenge for a Psychologically Safe Workplace

First Human Attempts at Controlled Flight

I believe it is time we replicated the quest for controlled flight by getting governments and investors to offer cash prizes to the first organization that achieves an effective and measurable psychologically safe environment in the workplace.

Excerpts from Matt Williams Blog

“The idea of offering incentive prizes to inspire technological innovation is a time-honored one. Governments, entrepreneurs, publishers, and enthusiasts have looked to the public and offered prizes for inventions and innovations that had beneficial applications.”

“When aviation was emerging as an industry, this incentive concept truly began to emerge. During this time, cash prizes were offered for “firsts”, which ranged from a short hop in an airplane to trans-Atlantic flights. One such first was financed by the British Newspaper The Daily Mail, which launched the English Channel Crossing Prize in 1908. This incentive-based competition pledged to award £500 to the first pilot to fly an airplane across the English Channel, a distance of nearly 38 km (21 miles) from the Calais region of France to Dover, England. After a year with no serious attempts being made, the prize money was doubled to £1,000 and the offer extended to the end of 1909. It was achieved in July that same year.” 

If the quest for psychological safety in the workplace was analogous to the pursuit of controlled flight, what stage would it be? Would we be off the ground yet? I would say we may be pretty close, but I don’t think that we have reached the Wright brothers stage yet. Sure, I hear people say, “look at this organization”, and “ look at that one”. But if they had bottled this quest for psychological safety, these organizations would surely be able to share it with the rest of us, and we would all be able to replicate it? The truth is that the quest for psychological safety has been around for at least 60 years. I believe it is just a myth, an aspiration, and we may never get off the ground.

Clarity is the Key

How we measure the achievement of a psychologically safe environment will be important for this “challenge.” My suggestion would be to randomly select any two team members, and ask them separately, the first two out of the three questions below. Then bring them together and ask them the third question, but first inform them of the answers they gave for the first two questions. What happens after that should make for interesting viewing and I believe will be plain to see if these two team members are part of a psychologically safe workplace.

Measuring Accountability?

Question 1. “How is accountability measured and achieved in your organization?
Ie. If a team member or the team leader misbehaves, how is he or she held to account?”

Can we feel safe if someone behaves poorly without there being an effective and measured accountability?

Measuring Transparency?

Question 2. “How is transparency measured and achieved in your organization?
ie. If a team member or the team leader leaves or is fired, is this information readily available to you without reverting to gossip, and how can you be sure it is true?”

Can we feel safe if we don’t know exactly why someone disappeared?”

Dispute Resolution and Reconciliation?

Question 3. “How are your internal disputes resolved and measured for their effectiveness? If either team member being interviewed here differed in your answer to questions 1 or 2, how are your differing views reconciled and what should happen if one of you were to “play the man and not the ball”, during the process?”

Ultimately, can we feel safe if we are not using the same play book?

The rules of this challenge, the questions asked and expected answers may need to be developed further, but the claim of achieving a psychologically safe environment must be actionable and measurable, I believe, in the same way as a non-stop flight from England to France was.

Personally I don’t believe there would be any two team members on the planet that could effectively answer these three questions and especially not the third. Even if the team members prepared for the questions before hand. Try it where you work.

So, the game’s afoot and let the challenges begin.

PS I think I could produce a team that would be able to handle these questions and pass the Psychological Safety Challenge.

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