Problems come up in even the best workplaces. And when they do, someone needs to speak up. But it’s not always easy to do that, especially if you’re in a junior position or a marginalised group.
Psychological safety, as explained by Amy Edmondson in The Fearless Organization, is the best tool for making sure your team feels empowered to speak up when it matters. In a psychologically safe workplace, everyone knows they can speak up without fear of being ignored or humiliated.
Here are just a few things to consider when ensuring your team or organisation is one which encourages people to speak up and speak out when something is wrong.
Advocating for yourself
In some cases, you just need to stand up for yourself. Many women have had the experience of realising they’re paid less than their male peers for the same work. In that situation, the only way to change things is to speak up for yourself (individually or collectively).
Of course, advocating for fair pay is much easier in a psychologically safe workplace where you know you won’t be punished for raising the issue. More than that, it’s difficult to even find out whether your salary is standard in a workplace or team where open conversation is discouraged.
Speaking up through others
There are some situations, though, where you need someone else to advocate for you. Maybe they have more power than you to effect change, or perhaps they have specialised knowledge you don’t.
In some cases, you may not feel safe speaking up by yourself, or you might need expertise in labour laws. In that case, the best way to speak up might be through your union.
Being in a psychologically safe workplace makes it much easier to decide when to do this. You know you can choose the most sensible route – whether that’s speaking to your manager, raising an issue in a meeting, going to your union rep or reporting something to HR – and you won’t be ignored or humiliated.
The role of privilege
Unfortunately, the people who have the most to speak up about are often those with the least privilege. If you’re in a leadership position, it’s vital that you understand this, and make sure you’re always advocating for the needs of people on your team with marginalised identities or experiences. I like to call this ‘active allyship’.
You don’t need to wait for someone to point out that your building has no step-free access – you can see that for yourself, and raise the issue. You don’t need to be colour blind to make sure materials are accessible to someone who is. And you certainly don’t need a visual impairment to notice if your company’s social media posts don’t use alt text or image descriptions.
Making your workplace psychologically safe should help empower everyone to speak up. But a part of developing that culture is you, as a leader, showing that you’re an active ally and advocating for people with less privilege than you.
The role of authority
Similarly, as a leader you need to be aware that people with less authority than you might have a hard time speaking up. This might be at the cost of your team or company improving.
New hires, people with relatively little experience in your industry, young people… All these people are in the perfect position to bring a fresh perspective to your organisation, before they become used to the day-to-day. Managers should be able to draw these insights out, and raise them where appropriate.
Of course, there’s a fine line here. While you can use your higher status to speak up more easily than a new or junior employee, you must always be careful to attribute good ideas correctly. You certainly won’t encourage psychological safety by claiming other people’s insights are your own!
Why psychological safety matters
It can be scary to advocate for yourself, or to call out dangerous behaviours or systems when you see them. But it’s also vital that everyone feels empowered to do this when it’s necessary.
As a leader, you need to ensure there’s a firm foundation of psychological safety in your team or company to enable this. That doesn’t just mean occasionally reminding people that they can bring up problems. It means putting robust systems in place which actually make it simple for anyone, regardless of position or communication style, to speak up.
Schedule regular one-on-one chats as well as group meetings. Have clear, anonymous reporting procedures. Recognise unions. Build in opportunities for people to raise background issues – say, scheduling annual meetings to discuss the company’s D&I policies, workplace culture, etc.
This will make it much easier for people to speak up and make positive changes, for themselves and for others.