Freedom to speak up – and why it's so important
Sometimes, breakdown of communication between members of a team can have enormous consequences.
Some of you may recall a terrible accident that occurred at an airport in Tenerife in 1977. Two aircraft full of passengers, one from KLM, the other from Pan Am, collided on the runway in what remains the worst disaster in civil aviation history.
There followed, of course, a very detailed investigation…and one of the key findings has implications for almost any kind of activity where people are working together in teams. The investigators found that communication – or rather flaws in communication – played a key role in the tragedy. The senior pilot on the KLM plane set his aircraft speeding down the runway for take-off without having received clearance to do so. His co-pilot and flight engineer both seemed to realise something was wrong but were too respectful of their chief to speak-up and challenge him. Had they done so early enough, the take-off could have been aborted and 583 lives saved.
What this tells us is that for teams to perform well – particularly teams working in unpredictable or fast-moving environments – it’s essential to have free and open communication so that critical information gets to the people who need it as fast as possible. But this isn’t just about transmitting information. Before that can happen I need to know I have the freedom to speak up - without fear of being shut-down, criticized, ridiculed…or even fired. There is some evidence that even where someone’s life is threatened by suppressing their voice – as in the Tenerife example – they still won’t speak up if the culture in the team is somehow intimidating or threatening.
This quality of “freedom to speak up” in a team has been the subject of academic study for over twenty years now, though it’s only just beginning to get the recognition it deserves. And it’s been given a label: psychological safety. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor who is the focus of much of the academic work in this area, characterises it as follows:
“Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves…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. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues.”
This may sound very simple, but it’s surprising how many teams fail to deliver this kind of culture, and as a result fail to reap its’ many benefits – or even expose themselves to catastrophic failure. Adjusting the culture of a team – shifting the “team norms” – can require a deft hand and some professional support.
But it’s clearly worth the effort. Look at Google, who in 2012 initiated a comprehensive study of factors affecting team performance (“Project Aristotle”). They reached the conclusion that “psychological safety was far and away the most important of the…dynamics we found…Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.” 
So there’s the payoff. Psychologically safe teams are more innovative, they learn from their mistakes, and they deliver more effectively. And people in psychologically safe teams are more engaged and supportive of each other, and less inclined to move on.
What emerges - whether your team is involved in emergency response, crisis intervention, airline or medical safety, time-constrained project delivery or a host of other activities where uncertainty and interdependence are high – is that building psychological safety is the vital foundation for best-possible performance.
And if this understanding has allowed us to avert another disaster on a fraction of the scale of Tenerife, it has been well worth the effort.
Dave Roberts, Change Maker
PeoplewithE is involved in an international research project called “SAFE”, which focuses on the importance of psychological safety for open communication and information flow in teams. The objective of SAFE is to gather feedback from leaders across Europe who are involved in team-focused activities characterized by high uncertainty. These may include airline flight crews, medical teams, emergency response teams, police, fire and ambulance, and military special forces, as well as many activities in the industrial and business sectors. In parallel with our colleagues from FutureTeaming in Spain and the Netherlands, we are conducting structured interviews to enable us to build and refine a model which can be used to implement and embed psychological safety in teams. If you are interested in participating in an interview, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Edmondson, Amy C. (2019): “The Fearless Organisation”, Wiley, page xvi. 1999
Anna Rozovsky, Google Operations, Nov 2015: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/