Last updated: Psychological safety: Why companies need a fearless culture

Psychological safety: Why companies need a fearless culture


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Have you heard of atychiphobia? Even if the word is unfamiliar, chances are you’ve experienced its grip, perhaps while waiting to take your driver’s license test or a day before that big presentation.

Atychiphobia is the paralyzing fear of failure and of everyone remembering your embarrassing moments forever. It’s the voice in the back of your head warning you to avoid risks and stick to what’s familiar and safe.

But this fear comes at a cost. It limits our potential and our ability to dream big or take bold steps. It stands as a barrier to creativity, locking away ideas that could lead to ground-breaking solutions.

The same holds true for businesses. When fear of failure arises in an organizational culture, it stifles innovation. The fear of making mistakes prevents employees from stepping out of their comfort zones, stopping them from exploring new approaches and ideas. And without innovation, businesses can become stagnant and unable to adapt to ever-changing markets.

Take the case of Nokia. Once a giant player in the mobile phone industry, Nokia’s hesitation to embrace innovation and explore new market trends eventually led to its downfall.

So, what can you do about this paralyzing fear? The answer is to embrace psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a concept that encourages a workplace environment where individuals feel comfortable taking risks, voicing their opinions, and being vulnerable without fearing punishment or judgment.

In this environment, employees can tap into their full potential, paving the way for creative solutions and innovation.

Psychological safety is crucial in human interactions, especially in the workplace. It means creating a supportive and inclusive environment where individuals feel safe to express themselves openly, share their ideas, take risks, and admit to mistakes without fear or embarrassment.

In psychologically safe settings, people are encouraged to challenge the status quo, engage in constructive discussions, and explore innovative solutions, knowing their contributions will be respected and considered.

This nurturing atmosphere fosters trust, boosts confidence, and empowers individuals to achieve their full potential, leading to improved collaboration, creativity, and overall team performance.

Benefits of psychological safety for business

The concept of psychological safety is not only a driver for individual growth, but also incredibly beneficial for companies in several ways:

  1. Faster learning
  2. Better risk management
  3. Faster innovation

Despite its negative connotations, failure can be an effective teacher.

When teams see failure as a valuable learning opportunity and not something to be ashamed of, they become better at identifying areas for improvement and making necessary adjustments.

This iterative learning process enables teams to evolve and adapt rapidly in a fast-moving market, giving them a competitive edge. By analyzing and understanding the root causes of their failures, teams can make informed decisions that prevent recurring mistakes and pave the way for continuous growth.

Failure transforms from being a setback to an opportunity for ongoing improvement and success.

Risk management at its best

Embracing failure does not mean recklessness. Instead, it involves adopting a thoughtful and strategic approach to risk management.

By creating a culture that encourages calculated risks, companies can test ideas in a controlled environment, allowing them to gather valuable data and insights that influence future decisions and actions.

Understanding what works and what doesn’t through trial and error empowers organizations to make more informed choices based on data and experiences while reducing unnecessary risks and maximizing the potential for success.

Safe space for experimentation drives innovation 

When companies foster an environment that embraces failure, they create a dynamic space where employees feel empowered to think creatively and challenge the status quo. This atmosphere of psychological safety allows team members to explore unconventional ideas without fear of judgment.

By encouraging a culture where failure is seen as a path to success, employees are more likely to take risks and experiment with new approaches. Embracing failure lets us break free from routine thinking, pushing companies toward finding disruptive solutions to complex problems while driving continuous innovation.

Netflix, for example, is known for its culture of embracing failure and its approach that emphasizes learning from data through A/B testing. Instead of labeling unsuccessful outcomes as failures, Netflix considers them valuable learning opportunities.

This culture of experimentation encourages anyone in the organization to contribute ideas, regardless of their role or hierarchy – leading to unexpected wins from the contributions of engineers, data scientists, and even executives.

We decided to adopt a similar approach at NETCONOMY, as it fits well with our values. During the pandemic, we introduced a format called “F**k-Up-Sessions” where team members from all departments could gather and share stories about their biggest failures and setbacks openly without the fear of being embarrassed.

What was great about it is that even members of our management team participated and shared their biggest “F**k-Ups“ with our team of 500 people. This helped promote an atmosphere of trust and support top-down, ensuring that every voice is heard, regardless of rank or experience.

How to achieve psychological safety

Achieving psychological safety is a science of its own, and it takes dedication and long-term measures to drive and foster that mindset in an organization.

However, there are some fundamental principles that underlay the concept, which you can start implementing in your company today:

  1. Non-punitive environment: Psychological safety promotes an environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for learning and growth rather than reasons for blame or punishment. Encourage team members to share their challenges openly. Emphasize that mistakes are a natural part of progress and that asking for help is a sign of strength. For many companies, adopting a healthy attitude towards errors is the first step to embracing an agile mindset crucial for complex project environments. Agile methodologies inherently involve experimentation and feedback, encouraging iterative development and frequent feedback. A punitive culture contradicts those principles and limits organizational effectiveness.
  1. Embracing vulnerability: Psychological safety allows individuals to be vulnerable without fear of judgment, enabling authentic and transparent interactions. This helps build deeper connections among team members and fosters a climate of trust. Lead by example and show your team that it’s okay to be open about uncertainties and struggles. When individuals feel safe, trust and connection among team members will naturally grow.
  2. Permission to speak up: Creating a space where everyone feels encouraged to contribute their ideas and concerns, regardless of their position or experience, is a cornerstone of psychological safety. Encourage active participation from all team members. Ensure that diverse perspectives are actively sought out and welcomed to generate a richer pool of ideas. This principle ensures that diverse perspectives are considered, and no valuable insights are lost.
  3. Feedback and growth: Teams that embrace psychological safety provide feedback to help one another grow and improve. Foster a culture where constructive feedback is given and received with kindness and empathy. Focus on supporting each other’s development rather than pointing out flaws. By doing this, your team members can grow personally and professionally.

Fostering a culture of psychological safety is crucial for unlocking the true potential of individuals and businesses. By encouraging a non-punitive environment where mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth and allowing everyone to speak up, you can cultivate a fearless culture of learning that drives success in an ever-changing world.

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