As humans, we constantly attempt to influence others’ perceptions of us by regulating and controlling information during social interactions. We do this both consciously and subconsciously, in an effort to fit in and build positive relationships. In situations where we don’t feel safe to be our full and authentic selves, we may hold back, not speaking up or being careful with what we share. Alternatively, when we feel safe, we are willing to take interpersonal risks.
Interpersonal risks include actions or words that lead to us potentially looking ignorant, incompetent or disruptive. Each of us learns how to manage these risks early in life and it often leads to individuals not speaking up when they have an idea that may go against the majority. In the workplace, this can have a big impact on the company success.
A study conducted on employee experiences with speaking up found that 85% of those surveyed reported at least one occasion where the felt unable to speak up or raise a concern with a boss. So what? Well, when employees don’t speak up when there is a problem, concern or potential big idea, it can have a big impact on organizations, including
- Employees underperforming and becoming dissatisfied
- The organization can be put at risk
- Can lead to avoidable accidents
To demonstrate, I’ll provide a couple of examples from my own experience.
The first example is an organization in which I felt supported and psychologically safe. I had worked in this organization for years, building good relationships with my manager and co-workers and I was comfortable taking interpersonal risks and sharing my thoughts. In this case, I was invited to a programming meeting and provided some thoughts on a new program that hadn’t been done before. Although there was skepticism and questions, they were curious ones about the feasibility of the program and not ones about my abilities or character. In the end, the program went forward and became a success, helping the organization lead the way in that program stream. What is interesting in this case is that I know that my experience of safety in this organization was not shared by all those in the organization or my department.
The second example takes place in an organization in which I was a newer employee, in a new field. During my first few weeks on the job, I witnessed other individuals being berated in meetings for making mistakes, ideas being openly criticized in company-wide meetings and other employees being talked about in a negative light behind their back. Personally, I rarely spoke up and kept most thoughts to myself. Although I don’t know that this culture led to any major accidents or organizational consequences, I do know that I was not the best performer during my time with the company and I ended up becoming dissatisfied and leaving the organization for another opportunity.
So, what allows people to take interpersonal risks, speak up and share their good ideas? Psychological safety is a major key. In environments where psychological safety is present, all individuals believe that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. Psychological safety exists when workplace participants trust and respect each other and feel the ability to be candid in their work discussions. As we saw in example one, psychological safety is a characteristic of a group and groups within organizations can have very different levels of psychological safety. These differences in workplace climate shape behaviour in subtle but powerful ways.
Organizations can benefit from interpersonal risk taking. By improving psychological safety, and ensuring staff are comfortable speaking up, organizations can prevent avoidable accidents, avoid being put at risk and improve employee performance.