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Psychological Safety & Accountability

Psychological Safety & Accountability

You may not want a performance culture! 

What you say?!? The unintended consequence of a performance culture is that it can impact psychological safety, which effects outcomes and business bottom line.

Both Adam Grant in Think Again, and Amy Edmondson in the Right Kind of Wrong, reference NASA’s performance culture linked to the Challenger (1986) and Colombia (2003) shuttle disasters. They had stopped challenging assumptions, had group think and were potentially too scared to challenge their bosses as there was pressure to conform to authority. They improved communication and an environment where concerns could be raised freely by anyone regardless of their position so that critical decision-makers were informed and accountable for safety decisions. 

Performance cultures focus on results. When NASA investigated these disasters, they found the performance culture was eroding psychological safety. There was fear that their expertise wouldn’t be valued if they challenged. 

Psychological safety is the ability to take interpersonal risks, to speak up, report errors without fear, and state when you don’t have the answer. When this is combined with a culture of accountability, teams are focused on team goals and standards, learning and failing fast, to help achieve these goals. 

There is a strong correlation between leadership skills and psychological safety. “In 2022, a study by Ecsell Institute found that when a leader’s skills were rated a 9 or a 10 by employees, they had an average psychological safety score of 84%. On the other hand, those whose overall skills were rated a 6 or lower had an average psychological safety rating of just 36%.” 

So how do you create a learning culture: 

  1. Stay curious and encourage a growth mindset - Carol Dweck wrote the book Mindset to describe the way people think about ability and talent. She believes that fixed and growth mindsets exist on a continuum. A fixed mindset suggests your abilities are innate and unchangeable. You see failure as permanent and are more likely to view critical feedback as a personal attack. With a growth mindset, you view your abilities as something you can improve through practice. You see failure as a chance to learn and you are focused on the journey to improve.  

  2. Learn from failures - This means encouraging open communication, acknowledging the normalcy of mistakes, and treating them as learning opportunities rather than failures. Edmondson emphasizes the importance of approaching failures as learning opportunities. She suggests that leaders should model curiosity and ask lots of questions, which helps to normalize the notion of not knowing everything and needing to learn. 

  3. Set clear expectations - Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and the expected outcomes and measures of success. Ensure that these expectations are realistic and align with the organisation's objectives. Transparency in what is expected helps in creating an atmosphere of accountability. 

  4.  Normalise feedback - Implement a feedback system where constructive feedback is given promptly and respectfully. Feedback should be a two-way street, where employees can also share their thoughts on their progress and the support they receive. Role model how to receive feedback. 

  5. Celebrate success – Reward teamwork, learning from mistakes, achievement and accountability. Publicly acknowledge and celebrate achievements to reinforce the positive impact of learning. Equally important is to discuss failures openly and constructively, extracting lessons and applying them in future endeavours. 

How will you create a learning culture in your organisation, built on psychological safety and accountability to drive performance and growth? 


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