Over the past few years, I’ve spoken with a lot of organizations about the importance of psychological safety. A 2012 study by Google showed that psychological safety is far and away the most important factor of a team’s success, yet many organizations lack the psychological safety required to be successful.
A few years ago, I worked with a client that was going through some major changes and employee morale was at rock bottom. As I began speaking with employees one theme stood out, employees didn’t feel safe speaking up. There were a number of reasons for this, including the fact that they felt their voices weren’t heard, their ideas were shot down or ignored, their requests for improvements fell on deaf ears, and yet they were expected to increase performance, meet tough deadlines, and help get the company out of the red. They were working in an organization that fell into the Anxiety Zone. There was low psychological safety but high accountability.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard professor, is the top authority on psychological safety. She has spent the past thirty years studying the effects of psychological safety on work teams and has found that there are four zones that organizations fall into.
The zones are defined by the level of psychological safety and motivation (keep in mind motivation can be negative or positive) and accountability the team has. The zones are described as follows:
Learning zone: In a learning zone, team members experience high accountability and high psychological safety. This is the ideal learning environment for innovation and growth because even though members are responsible for their actions, their team offers continuous support.
Comfort zone: Team members have high psychological safety and low accountability. While this zone is more relaxed, almost like a vacation, there is no push for creativity and growth.
Apathy zone: With low psychological safety and low accountability, team members fall into the apathy zone. There are no repercussions for mistakes, teams lack adequate communication and support, and individuals struggle to care about their work.
Anxiety zone: Team members experience low psychological safety and high accountability. Communication breaks down and when mistakes are made, people are often too scared of punishment or humiliation to take responsibility. Opportunities for learning and innovation are scarce.
Which zone is your team in and if you’re not in the learning zone, how can you help your organization get there?