Taking the safer path to digital transformation success

What has psychological safety got to do with technology strategy? Digital transformation might seem to be the business of fearless pioneers in an organisation working their magic with new tools for collaboration and rapid app development. But it’s actually more important to acknowledge our universal vulnerability if you want the innovation and performance it takes to make the most of investments in technology.

When it comes to growing a business, leaders need to take risks and learn from failures. But if they cast themselves only as heroes and keep their vulnerability hidden, they can’t expect teams to have the courage to come forward with their own ideas for a better way to solve business challenges. This admission of your own frailty is a fundamental leadership quality for our times of rapid change. As the operating environment we’re dealing with gets more demanding, it’s up to leaders to create a culture that strives for success without losing sight of the fact that we all need permission to make mistakes.

The highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off—just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.

High-performing teams need psychological safety: Here’s how to create it, Laura Delizonna, Microsoft Workplace Insights

What is psychological safety?

While Professor Edmondson started exploring the impact and value of psychological safety in the workplace in the 90s, the concept has been really catching on during the pandemic. As the external threat of a virus gave us a very real fear to face up to, a sense of psychological safety at work has become even more important to employee wellbeing. And the discretionary performance and ability to adapt to the change that organisations need from their workforce are far easier to muster when they can voice their struggles and share solutions for the challenges thrown up by work every day – whether they were in the middle of a lockdown or not.   

Why it matters

When there is no psychological safety in the workplace, then people suffer trauma. As a result, productivity and, implicitly, revenue decrease; innovation and performance drop. This translates into costs to the individual—such as health problems, poor decision quality, low satisfaction—but also into significant costs to the company, such as absenteeism, attrition, the inability to retain highly skilled workers, low engagement, low skill acquisition, low innovation and low productivity. Eventually, such an environment translates into a poor employer brand and a sustained competitive disadvantage.

Why psychological safety at work matters to business, Torin Monet, Accenture Business Functions Blog, 28 October 2021 

If organisations weren’t convinced by the business case for psychological safety before COVID, they’re on board with it now. From McKinsey to Deloitte to Harvard Business Review, blogs and research on organisational leadership are awash with proof points demonstrating the value of psychological safety to engagement and retention for employees as well as their potential for innovation. According to Accenture, organisations that ‘engineer’ for psychological safety can expect a 76% uplift in engagement, 50% more productivity and a very healthy 74% fall in stress.

But the improvement I see as most meaningful for organisations on a digital transformation journey is the 67% increase in probability that workers will apply a newly learned skill on the job. This is a critical win for psychological safety when it comes to getting your workforce in the right headspace for making full use of the tech tools and capabilities you’re putting in front of them. Because until you get people involved, you can’t be 100% sure what technology can do for your organisation.

The whole point of digital transformation is do things faster and better than before. Working to a high standard and at speed is more rewarding for individuals and teams and it frees them up to think about other ways to improve the outcomes for their role, team and the organisation as a whole. But none of this can happen if they don’t feel safe to put their hand up and try something new, like a suggestion for automating a manual task or capturing a metric that helps their team answer an important question. Making things easier won’t feel like an option if they’re not used to giving things a red hot go and risking some mistakes as a result.

Tactics to try

To help leaders and teams get into their own groove with openness and freedom to share, the trust and vulnerability chapter of The Art of Teamwork Guide from Microsoft is a great place to start. It’s got thought starters to help leaders reflect on just how psychologically safe their team environment actually is and a facilitation guide to get the whole team on the same page with the value of vulnerability in building trust – and a more positive, problem-solving team dynamic as a result.  

The virtuous cycle of trust and vulnerability establishes psychological safety in a team. Team members who feel safe are better able to take interpersonal risks. This allows them to bring their full selves to their work, which in turn sets the stage for innovative ideas to flourish.

Microsoft, The Art of Teamwork Guide 

Bring the fun

I’m always looking for ways to build a more utopian environment for our team, one where the work they do is something they can make their own, have some fun along the way and always get the recognition they deserve, as individuals and teams.

While we’re evolving how we can do this better in our day-to-day, one of the ways we are getting it right is in how we come together as an organisation.

No matter how busy we get, we ensure we make time for reflection on what we feel is working and what needs work. We also understand that open forums are not ideal for all, so we work hard to create an environment where our people feel safe to speak up and make their unique contribution to our work and culture.

Looking for ways to foster innovation and performance through technology adoption? Get in touch to find out how we can help.