While a lack of psychological safety means a team is missing out on the opportunity to take risks and innovate (as I pointed out last week), when the lack of psychological safety becomes rampant, a much bigger risk develops. That risk is the deafening silence that descends on the organisation because no one will speak up. A situation termed organisational or employee silence.
I wrote about this phenomenon a couple of months ago when I reflected on my time at HIH Insurance and the need to sometimes move “Beyond Nudging”. In that blog I was encouraging risk practitioners to shift from challenging decisions on a case by case basis to having one big discussion about whether sufficient psychological safety exists. The goal: to create psychological safety so staff in the trenches feel comfortable raising issues, thus preventing many of the decisions that the risk function may need to challenge from ever being made.
It’s easy to say that a bigger conversation needs to be had. It’s harder to have the conversation if it is not psychologically safe to do so. The Royal Commission noted “… a culture appeared to have developed within HIH not to question leadership decisions.”[i]
If you need to have a big conversation, first determine if the silence is due to explicit or implicit behaviour by management. If explicit, where people are punished for speaking out, you will need to tread very carefully. If it is implicit, where management are not aware of the situation they have created, you will have a slightly easier road.
Either way, you will need to plan your strategy. As I wrote in my book Winning Conversations, when delivering bad news, you need to start with what’s great, move to what’s wrong while showing plenty of empathy and deliver options for what’s next. And always finish on a positive.
And as per my Pathfinder Model of persuasion, you will need a powerful story to shift emotions. I have mine. It is the story of Australia’s largest corporate collapse, HIH Insurance.
Stay safe and influence leaders to build psychological safety!
[i] Bailey, Brendan; Research Note, Department of the Parliamentary Library, No. 32, 13 May 2003.
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Bryan Whitefield works with strategic leaders across all sectors to help organisations harness uncertainty – uncertainty is the strategic leader’s best friend. He is the author of DECIDE: How to Manage the Risk in Your Decision Making and Winning Conversations: How to turn red tape into blue ribbon. He is the designer of the Risk Culture: Build Your Tribe of Advocates Program for support functions and the Persuasive Adviser Program for internal advisers. Both can be booked individually or in-house. For more information about Bryan, please click here.