Gene Taylor _ Unsplash

The hippopotamus is the most dangerous animal in the savannah.... and in meeting rooms.

At the end of the meeting, after 1 hour of discussion, the HIPPO (HIghest Paid Person's Opinion) emerges. She gives her opinion and all decisions are aligned to it. If it is the opinion of the highest paid person that takes precedence, why having a meeting at all? Beyond the waste of time, the biggest danger is to miss ideas, feedback and the opportunity to strengthen the teams' collective intelligence. Avoid this danger: practice psychological safety.

Collective intelligence is essential to innovation and agility in an ever-changing world. Psychological safety is essential to create this collective intelligence.

The concept of psychological safety emerged with the publication of Amy Edmondson's book "The fearless organization" and the Aristotle study conducted at Google in 2012.

Edmondson defines psychological safety as : « A climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored or blamed ».

You've probably found yourself, like me, in meetings without daring to ask the question that's on your mind, to challenge the status quo of the group or even express a different opinion. 

When you consider the risk of expressing yourself to be greater than the benefit, you are in a low-psychological-safe environment.

What makes us respect the HIPPO in the meeting to the point of silence? Fear.

The fear of tarnishing our professional image. By remaining silent we preserve it.

As an individual we save our reputation. As a team we miss an opportunity to share. Without this exchange of ideas the team limits its collective intelligence. When opinions are debated and confronted, the team or even the organization gains agility and stays in the race. In short, it keeps a serious competitive edge.

But not only… 

The more these exchanges exist within teams, the more each member will learn how to contribute and expose himself for the benefit of all. This authenticity provides leaders with real-time knowledge of the concrete issues and expectations of their team's stakeholders.

Google's Aristotle study puts psychological safety at the top of the podium to explain the performance of their teams. Beyond the number of foosball tables or individual expertise, it is expressing oneself without fear that is the best lever to develop teams, advance projects and innovate.  

The good news is that you don't have to have Google-like work environment to be at the top of your game. The bad news is that only 43% of the teams surveyed during the pandemic felt they were operating in a psychologically safe climate. (McKinsey Study_Feb2021)

So where do you start to create and practice psychological safety? Here are 3 angles to get you started and lay the foundation.

  • Lead by example: As a leader, admit that you don't always have all the answers and that other opinions may be valid. Acknowledge that some questions are indeed sensitive and require reflection. Share one's mistakes.
  • Delineate the psychological safe space and clearly state the objectives of the project and purpose of the team. All ideas, opinions, proposals and even mistakes that can help the project and therefore the team to progress are welcome. This automatically excludes justifications, criticisms and personal remarks. In short, there is no risk of ending up in the Karpman triangle (Rescuer, Victim, Persecutor).

  • In holacratic management, the purpose of roles and responsibilities are defined in the constitution. This gives everyone the right to express any "tensions" felt during meetings, so that they can be addressed. The result: a collective intelligence in motion.

  • Be inclusive: feeling accepted in the team or the project is the first step to dare to express yourself. Give and create a space for everyone to share their mood of the day, their successes, their fears.  This is especially important for teams working remotely.  Establish and respect rounds, particularly for the most introverted among us. Be attentive to newcomers, include them in formal or informal exchanges to create a sense of belonging.

What about you? Do you remember the context or the discussion in which you remained silent rather than taking the risk of speaking out?