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Should Psychological Safety be a KPI?

In our modern workspaces, the buzz around psychological safety is more than justified—it is crucial. Psychological safety is perhaps the most common human experience. It is our internal assessment of interpersonal risk in a social environment. It represents an individual's confidence in the freedom for risk-taking, voicing opinions without the backlash, and presenting one's true perspectives while in a team. It is the foundation for team efficacy, innovation, and the broader success of an organization. 

Yet, the discourse around its potential as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) remains unclear. There was some discussion about this in a recent Podcast interview on the The Fearless PX's podcast which you can find here: https://open.spotify.com/show/0AF2NiFrvQdxrLKWGyXFBN?si=5ae133a5395c40e6&nd=1&dlsi=bd38e9392e0647e9.

One of the most critical elements that becomes available in a psychologically safe environment is the ability for, not just an individual, but a group to move to second order thinking. Where the group is able to consider the first order elements, meaning thinking about the things that have a direct impact on outcomes. But, also starting to question the system itself (broader context, and the rules we have may have attached to a problem that just might not be valuable). 

This often starts with a thought experiment. 

At Aristotle Performance it is common to put our own assumptions, our own beliefs, and our own “rules of engagement” on the table and debate them from the point of view that they just might be wrong. Sometimes it turns out they are at least working against our higher aims as an organization. This practice has been a consistent source of innovation and transformative thinking.

What it comes down to is we do a lot of thinking about “what's right” instead of “who’s right”.

I wanted to make this line of thinking, and our internal process of challenging our own practices more public. And, at the same time, opening more discussion on the idea that psychological safety should or shouldn’t be a KPI.

So, let's explore this idea some more - could the risks of having psychological safety as a KPI be outweighed by the potential benefits?

There's a palpable apprehension in our community that re-purposing psychological safety measurement into a KPI might pave the way for its exploitation. Leaders, fixated on metrics, might veer towards crafting an illusion of psychological safety, prioritizing numbers over the authentic cultivation of a safe work culture. This misstep could lead to disenchanted employees who see through the veneer of token gestures, recognizing them as nothing more than a checklist item, detached from a genuine commitment to their growth and well-being. 

Even worse - inflated or false positives could act as a potential shield for negative behavior. The good old fashion toxic leadership “score the upcoming survey high or else” threat is often sighted as the biggest fear consultants, coaches and internal professionals have.

But is this behavior something we can actually expect? Do we think so little of leaders that this is the best we could hope for?

We know that humans are prewired to look for the negative - we are survivalists at our very core. And after all, that is also the goal of having a brain that navigates psychological safety - to keep us safe. 

Depending on the existing organizational culture these fears may be more or less likely to appear.

But what if that assumption was wrong?

So, let's consider the flip side—why psychological safety merits a spot among KPIs. Leveraging the status of a KPI underlines its critical role in the organization's strategic aims. It is a declaration that nurturing a supportive, inclusive environment is not merely optional but integral to the organization's fabric. Organizations who want to reap the rewards that psychological safety clearly shows need to send this signal anyways - why not short circuit the process? 

In one organization we lead an initiative where an increase of psychological safety was correlated with an increase of 7% in productivity - across 850 people. In addition retention was up, leadership trust was up, resilience was up - what's not to like about those results? It all started with leadership signaling its importance and, most effectively, actually following through with leadership training which was in alignment with company values, leadership frameworks and performance reviews.

Navigating this terrain demands vigilance against the pitfalls—chief among them, the specter of false harmony. The lure of high psychological safety scores might tempt teams to prioritize superficial peace over the rich tapestry of genuine engagement and diverse perspectives. This path, where the allure of agreement stifles true innovation and performance is hampered by counterproductive team dynamics. 

While we champion the cause of psychological safety, we must provide leaders with metrics, and the ability to understand and react to them or run the risk of inadvertently muzzling dissent or dampening healthy conflict. 

Measuring psychological safety equips leaders with insights to gauge progress, pinpoint improvement areas, and customize interventions. This is where the conversation often gets sticky for consultants who help with the psychological safety question - they want to measure to design interventions - but they don’t want a KPI. How can you have it both ways? In reality the data provided when measuring psychological safety is great - for those who can use it effectively. So if leaders are equipped to be effective - why not give them more data?

If it isn't about policing but about fostering a climate where employees thrive, sparking team cohesion, productivity, and inventiveness - then the only question you need to ask is; do we have more leaders who would  create a positive outcome with this information than negative?

We know that 70% or more leaders overestimate psychological safety depending on the research you dig into. The tendency is to default to the vilification of leaders as the reason for that over-estimation. This is true in some cases but for the most part it’s because teams are good at telling leaders things are better than they are and leaders forget how hard it is to speak-up on a team--the longer they are a leader the greater this overestimation effect.

Adopting psychological safety as a metric motivates leaders to embody and promote behaviors that cultivate this environment. Accountability for fostering a team where every voice is valued, where diversity of thought is not just welcomed but sought after, transforms leaders. They become champions of inclusive behaviors, active listening, and the nuanced art of constructive feedback.

Herein lies the opportunity for a paradigm shift in leadership development. 

Instead of leaning on psychological safety measurements as a KPI in the traditional sense, we should harness it as a tool for shaping a leadership ethos that prizes psychological safety. It is about training leaders to excel in a framework of behaviors known to amplify psychological safety—then evaluating them on these behaviors. 

Training the character traits needed for effective leadership–like courage, humility, initiative, determination and curiosity–and measuring the consistency and effectiveness of the cognitive skills and behaviors associated with those traits transcends the mere application of a tool unfit for KPI purposes.

This approach also allows psychological safety metrics to remain where it has the most utility: to serve the needs of those who work interdependently. To gauge the climate and kickstart meaningful, constructive dialogue amongst those who depend on each other to get work done.

While the debate on psychological safety as a KPI is valid, the short answer is that Psychological safety as a KPI can be done, but it’s not the best approach or best use of those metrics. When used correctly, measuring psychological safety is very powerful for developing teams. The simplest intervention is often the most effective - measure psychological safety then have a dialogue about the results. What led to these results? How could we do better? 

More broadly speaking, teams with leaders who have developed effective leadership character traits who are supported and held accountable to those standards create high-functioning teams. Marked by their propensity for innovation, problem-solving, and adaptability, these teams underscore the value of a psychologically safe environment. 

By reorienting our approach and cultivating leadership that inherently supports psychological safety, we do not just invest in the well-being of our employees; we lay the groundwork for enduring business success.


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