A couple of months ago, I published an article about psychological safety, which is the concept of allowing individuals to take risks such as speaking their mind or challenging the status quo. Afterward, I received a note from an HR Bartender reader asking how to bring up the subject with their manager. It’s a great question.
Since I wrote the original piece, I wanted to give you a different point of view about psychological safety. To help us understand more, I reached out to Ryan Changcoco, who is senior manager for the Association for Talent Development (ATD) management practice and the program director for the Yale Executive Education Management Excellence Program. I’ve known Ryan for years and always respected his insights.
Ryan, thanks for being here. For employees who are reading articles like this one on psychological safety, what’s the best way for an employee to forward or share this information with management?
[Changcoco] This is a tricky situation and has to be handled with sensitivity. Often managers have blinders on and don’t necessarily realize their short-comings. If an employee has a good relationship with their manager—they have open conversations about feedback and the employee feels comfortable providing upward feedback—they should be able to share this type of article with their manager. It’s important for the employee to read the room and to gauge how well their manager will react to receiving this type of information.
The one thing to consider is that psychological safety is a term many managers might not fully grasp. Although the intent is good, it’s best for an employee consider their audience before they share an article like this.
Let’s flip the question. If I’m a manager and one of my employees sends me an article about psychological safety, how should I take it? A manager might assume that the article is pointed at them.
[Changcoco] I agree, there are times where the first reaction is not the best one. I think it’s important for managers to step back and analyze the intent behind the send. To start, take a few breaths and assume that the intention is a good one. Ask yourself, is it something as simple as “Hey, I thought you’d find this interesting,” or was it sent because your employee wants you to correct your behavior? There may be a bigger issue if you, as the manager, are unsure.
Managers who are comfortable (and secure) with their management style and those that have a good and open relationship with their direct reports will have a better sense of the intent of the send.
I could see an employee being confronted with the question, “Do you feel like you can speak up here?” How can employees comfortably and honestly answer the question?
[Changcoco] It depends on the culture of the organization. Certain employees will feel pressured to say “yes,” although they might not be fully bought into their answer. Cultures that provide psychological safety allow for employees to be free with their responses without the fear of retaliation or retribution.
I agree that company culture is key. And in some cultures, employees might just fake it and say, “Yes, I feel safe speaking up.” Is there an effective and easy way for organizations to determine if employees feel “safe” before asking the question?
[Changcoco] One of the most effective ways for companies to determine if employees feel psychologically safe is through anonymous surveying. This is the one way that employees can feel safe about their response without the fear or retaliation.
Last question. If companies could only do one thing to make their organizations more psychologically safe, what would it be?
[Changcoco] Ah yes, if I knew the exact answer to this, I’d be a millionaire 😊.
It starts with transparent (and consistent) conversations between managers and their employees. Expectations need to be addressed from the get-go (both ways) and should be revisited periodically. Sustainable and consistent communication will help to build good habits between managers and their direct reports. Furthermore, consistent and transparent communication will foster trust between managers and their employees. Trust (both ways) is the backbone of psychological safety.
My thanks to Ryan for sharing his knowledge with us. If you want to stay informed of the latest news from ATD, be sure to follow them on LinkedIn.
My big takeaway here is two-fold: 1) If an employee feels that they can’t speak up, then they need to ask themselves “Why?” and 2) Before bringing up psychological safety, do your homework and understand the audience you’re planning to talk with. This is an important topic that employees at every level of the organization need to take seriously because it centers around developing and maintaining a culture of trust.25