This article is part of a series that Ranjit Dhindsa is working on, exploring inclusivity, diversity and culture across different industries. She interviews Mike specifically on the topic of organisational culture and psychological safety.
Mike, can you tell us a little bit about your background?I am a Business Psychologist and Executive Coach. I am also a qualified clinical psychologist. I’m a leadership Coach at Oxford University Said Business School. I have written two books. One called Anti-Burnout, on the organisational aspects of burnout and one called the Saboteur at Work about unconscious processes in people, organisations, and economies. I use psychology to help businesses improve performance.
Is psychological safety an individual or organisational problem?
It is interesting that you mention organisational culture in the same breath as psychological safety. I found that most issues around psychological safety are presented as individual problems – usually to deal with complaints and grievances. Whereas in my experience, almost always the problem is with the culture of the organisation.
Let me give you an example. I was asked to help a financial services firm with a senior manager who had been complained about for sending the most appallingly sexist emails and telling inappropriate jokes in the workplace. When I dug a bit deeper I found that everybody in his department was like that. It was like a bad 1970s sitcom. The female members of staff wanted to defend him saying that all the unacceptable conversations in the team were just banter. What had happened was a new female member had joined the team and was quite rightly shocked and appalled by what she heard and had made the complaint. The problem was not really the senior manager – he was just part of the problem – the main problem was the culture of that team.
What does psychological safety really mean?
Psychological safety is the essential component of any well-functioning high-performance team. There is a ton of research to say that the main factor in high-performance teams is the existence of cognitive diversity and psychological safety. In fact, you can define a toxic work culture by its lack of psychological safety. Psychologically safe companies are places where people feel safe to speak up, express their concerns, and feel that they are heard. People are able to say if they see something wrong or if they can see a better way of doing something. They can speak up without fear of retaliation or being shamed. Often, the idea of psychological safety is conflated with the terrible idea of ‘safe spaces.’ That’s the polar opposite of psychological safety. A psychologically safe space is a challenging space and a brave space. It’s a space where people can be exposed to ideas that they might not agree with and learn from that experience.
Why do people turn a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour and not intervene?
People do not intervene when they see wrongdoing because they are frightened of conflict. They are often worried about saying the wrong thing or offending somebody. Many managers now feel that they are walking on eggshells because they are too anxious to challenge unacceptable behaviour for fear of the offender complaining about them or taking out a grievance.
There is also a well-known psychological process called bystander effect – sometimes known as diffusion of responsibility – where people avoid intervening because they think someone else will. They turn a blind eye believing that it is somebody else’s responsibility to speak out. That is a very dangerous attitude to take, and results in scandals such as the BBC and Jimmy Savile, Winterbourne View, and all the latest scandals in the Metropolitan police.
How is it that a small minority group can control a debate, which makes it difficult for the majority to say what they want?
The poet, WB Yeats wrote “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Often, a minority opinion expressed with passion and conviction becomes perceived as the majority opinion. Back in 1974, a German social Psychologist called Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann came up with the theory of the Spiral of Silence to explain this. She said that everybody wants to be liked and nobody wants to be excluded from their social group. This goes back to our evolutionary past where to be excluded might have meant death. Because of this, people have a strong motivation to conform to the dominant view. They closely monitor what the prevailing opinion seems to be. The problem arises, when a minority express their views in a very strident way, and other people say nothing, this creates the illusion that the minority view is held by everybody – the silence is taken as agreement. We live in a society where intelligent people have to stay quiet to avoid upsetting stupid people.
How can companies deal with issues of psychological safety without resorting to grievances, disciplinaries and formal processes
It is hard. Companies need to somehow find a balance between turning a blind eye to wrongdoing and bad behaviour on the one hand, and zealotry on the other hand. The alternative to collusion is to spend time thinking about and understanding the systemic issues in the situation and if possible aiming for forgiveness. If an employee has committed an egregious offence, then the only response is to use the disciplinary process. However, in my experience, most of the situations are a result of thoughtlessness rather than malice.
Take the manager I mentioned earlier, undoubtedly he behaved badly but that was in the context of most people behaving badly. There was also a genuine lack of intent to upset anyone and also a genuine sense of remorse. It was not a bad person – just a thoughtless person. And who in this world has not been thoughtless from time to time?
Here is another quote, this time from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The line that divides good from evil does not lie between people but down the centre of every human heart”. In practice I have found the best way of managing situations like this is to bring people together in either a formal or informal mediation session. Often when people realise that their words or behaviour deeply has upset someone else, they are mortified and eager to apologise. At the same time, if the upset person realises that the offender was just being an idiot rather than malicious, then more often than not they are happy to forgive. This kind of process strengthens teams rather than destroys them.
Thank you Mike for a fascinating conversation.
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