This week has really saddened me! The tragedy with the Titan submersible has caused me to shed a tear or two, not because I knew anyone on board, but because I have a real fear that it is history repeating itself.
Psychological safety has emerged as a crucial concept within organisations 1. It refers to an environment where individuals feel safe to express their opinions, concerns, and ideas without fear of reprisal or judgment 2. While the notion of psychological safety may seem intangible, its impact can be profound, particularly when it comes to preventing catastrophic incidents.
Did someone know that the new blend of composite material used for the ship was not right? Was James Cameron the only one? This is not the first time, unfortunately, below I delve into the significance of psychological safety and explore a historical example where the absence of this vital element resulted in tragic consequences.
One of the most notable instances where the lack of psychological safety had dire consequences was the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986. The Challenger was a space shuttle that exploded shortly after launch, resulting in the loss of all seven crew members. An investigation into the disaster revealed a culture within NASA that discouraged dissenting opinions and failed to foster an atmosphere of psychological safety 3.
Engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company responsible for manufacturing the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, had expressed concerns about the unusually cold weather conditions on the day of the launch. They believed that the O-rings, which sealed the joints of the rocket boosters, might fail at low temperatures. However, their concerns were not adequately addressed, and the launch proceeded as planned 3.
The engineers, despite being highly competent and knowledgeable, felt apprehensive about speaking up and challenging the prevailing 'groupthink' within the organisation. The lack of psychological safety prevented them from voicing their concerns forcefully, leading to a tragic outcome. This incident served as a stark reminder of the critical importance of fostering an environment where individuals feel empowered to express their reservations, even when it challenges the status quo.
Psychological safety acts as a catalyst for individuals to voice their opinions, share their expertise, and contribute to a culture of collective intelligence 2. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to raise concerns, suggest innovative solutions, and identify potential risks. This freedom of expression allows organisations to make informed decisions, avoid blind spots, and prevent catastrophic failures.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact of psychological safety on team performance, innovation, and overall organisational success. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, conducted extensive research on the subject and found that teams with high levels of psychological safety were more likely to admit mistakes, collaborate effectively, and learn from failures 1. This open and inclusive culture ultimately fosters a sense of trust, engagement, and commitment among team members.
I work with leaders to help them build a culture of psychological safety in their businesses, but it requires intentional efforts from leaders and individuals alike. Here are some key strategies to promote psychological safety within an organisation:
Lead by example: Leaders should model vulnerability and openness, sharing their own challenges and mistakes. This helps to normalise imperfection and encourages others to speak up without fear of judgment.
Encourage active listening: Leaders should actively listen to their team members, value their perspectives, and demonstrate empathy. This helps to create an environment where everyone's voice is heard and respected.
Embrace constructive feedback: Encourage the exchange of feedback and ensure it is seen as an opportunity for growth rather than criticism. Constructive feedback enables individuals to learn from their mistakes and improve their performance.
Foster inclusive collaboration: Promote a collaborative and inclusive environment where diverse perspectives are welcomed and valued. Encourage cross-functional collaboration and create platforms for open dialogue and idea-sharing.
I really hope that this week's tragedy was just an unavoidable tragedy that happens sometimes when you are pushing the envelope, but I don't know! What I do know, is that Psychological safety plays a vital role in preventing tragic incidents by empowering individuals to speak up, challenge assumptions, and contribute to a culture of safety and excellence. The Challenger Spacecraft disaster stands as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences that can occur when good people feel silenced. By fostering an environment of psychological safety, organisations can unlock the full potential of their teams, ensure effective decision-making, and create a safer and more innovative future.
Edmondson, A. C. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Wiley.
Vaughan, D. (1997). The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. University of Chicago Press.
McGrath, J. E. (2021). Psychological Safety: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Human Resource Development Review, 20(1), 83-113.