“Learning In” to Create a High-Performance Culture: Psychological Safety Key to Unlocking Breakthrough Results


By Bernadette Smith

Have you created a work environment that, in theory, has all the elements to breed high performance, but are still not seeing the breakthroughs needed to propel your organization to the next level? What is it that is holding your employees back from excelling?

From ‘Fluff’ to Fruition
Creating an environment of psychological safety is an often-overlooked link to creating a high performance culture. Often perceived as ‘fluff’, it is grounded in a shared belief that the workplace is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and enables employees to take risks without fear of being judged by their leaders and peers.  Leaders, managers and employees alike need to be provided with development opportunities to acquire the tools, form the mindset and build the confidence to enable them to boldly go where they haven’t dared to go before to breakthrough and perform at their best.

Psychological safety may appear to be ‘just fluff’, but there is a growing body of research showing that it is the key ingredient to improving organizational effectiveness.  A recent study conducted in the Google organization identified psychological safety as the most important dynamic, out of 5, in predicting team effectiveness. Team members need to feel safe to take risks and to be vulnerable in front of each other to do their best work.

Upgrading the Social Workplace
The culture of an organization is essentially its ‘operating system,’ guiding how people behave on a daily basis and driving how things get done.  Creating a high performance culture requires an integrated system of managing the performance of the organization, teams and individuals where priority projects are being completed on time and goals are being met.   A leader’s role is to inspire and bring this culture to life by enabling employees and their teams to contribute in a meaningful way, without barriers, to unleash their best performance.

Most organizations have formal systems in place that direct, monitor and manage performance, but the informal systems related to behavioural norms in the social workplace are trickier to change and often left unaddressed.  This is where a training solution can integrate both systems and act as the transformational catalyst for the behavioural change required to create the mindset that will shape the desired culture in the workplace.

Five Leadership Development Areas for Creating a High-Performance Culture

Development Area

Desired Outcome

1.  Set clear expectations for individuals and teams for achieving organizational results. Provide focus on activities aligned with the business priorities of the organization and the behaviours required by individuals and teams to deliver on performance expectations.

2.  Establish accountability for results at all levels. Establish clear responsibilities and performance measurements for results to enable all individuals, teams and leaders to take ownership and accountability for their contribution to outcomes.

3.  Enable, empower and trust employees to make operational decisions. Provide the tools and knowledge required to confidently apply a disciplined approach to effective decision making.

4.  Challenge employees with stretch assignments with leadership support. Develop employees by providing challenging opportunities to learn and grow, with steadfast coaching support, to build confidence, engagement and personal drive.

5.  Create an environment of psychological safety to inspire innovation and creativity and enable employees to perform at their best. Build a work environment where teams trust and respect each other and feel uninhibited when taking risks, speaking up or exploring new possibilities together to spark breakthroughs.

Connection Wired to Psychological Safety
By nature, we are wired to need social connection and to belong to a group. As a result,  employees need to feel connected to their team and to their leaders to thrive.  The perception of social exclusion can be very painful and negatively impact an employee’s performance.   Leaders need to minimize the perception of social threats either from their own or team members’ behaviours to achieve higher levels of performance.

The fear of looking bad in front of their co-workers holds many employees back from speaking up and contributing breakthrough ideas.  They don’t want to say or do anything that will negatively impact peers’ perceptions of their competence and capabilities or, for that matter, level of positivity. As a result, they will not risk putting an out-of-the-box idea out there even though it could be a game-changer. This silence presents a barrier to creativity and innovation and speaks volumes about the importance of psychological safety. By comparison, the inherent freedom to express and test new ideas is a core characteristic of high performance teams.

Opening the Door to High-Performance
Leaders are encouraged to create a safe environment based on openness and trust where employees learn it is not only okay, but essential that they lean in to provide their opinion for creative solutions to tough problems or generate new growth opportunities without the fear of failure or being criticized. A workplace where relationships are built on respect and conflict or competition is healthy and constructive, not demoralizing and destructive.

Where judgement is suspended, each idea or contribution is evaluated on its own unique merits and built upon, not torn down. When the spirit of innovation is celebrated no matter what the outcome, good things are increasingly likely. This type of environment will inspire the creativity, innovation and employee drive it takes to create a high performing culture that achieves results.

Safety First: Learn Before You Lead
This degree of culture change is easier said than done.  Most leaders are not equipped to create an environment that fosters this level of team connection, collaboration and interdependence. In fact, leaders first need to feel safe themselves in order to model the same behaviours for their teams and inspire a high level of performance. Resultantly, it’s most often in the best interest of the organization to invest in leadership and employee development to help create this mindset; this allows a new set of behaviours to be defined and embraced by the entire organization to create the enterprise culture change required.

Creating psychological safety is a necessary component in creating a high performance culture.  Leaders that take the time to build trusting, supportive relationships and safety within their teams will improve engagement and unleash the talent necessary to boldly pursue breakthrough results.

Bernadette Smith is vice-president of talent development solutions with the Canadian Management Centre.

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  1. As shown at IDEO, one of the most innovative companies in the world, psychological safety is based on Trust, which shows up as willingness of all employees at all levels to ask for and offer help to each other. Whatever tools or techniques are used, the results must be visible and talked about, so a common understanding develops. see previous People Talk articles on Trust.

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