Hidden Dangers from the Lack of Psychological Safety in Biotech

Jan 23, 2020

By Edie Stringfellow, Director of D&I at MassBio

We talk a lot about the importance of team collaboration, trust, and risk-taking; about bringing our full-selves to work and empowerment. But there is very little discussion about the internal perception that you will feel embarrassed for not knowing something, ridiculed for making a foolish suggestion, or judged for sharing too much. We don’t talk enough about psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, the author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” and who coined the term psychological safety in the 1990s, defines it as “the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. People feel able to speak up when needed – with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns – without being shut down in a gratuitous way. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.”

In this blog, we will discuss how the lack of psychological safety in the workplace can be dangerous and how it affects inclusion as well as patient outcomes.

As human beings, we all have the basic psychological needs of self-respect and feeling connected with others. Nobody wants to be perceived as being negative, a loner, or too radical. However, we work in an industry that demands we take chances. But, how can we do so consistently if team members worry that speaking up can result in isolation or stagnation in their careers? The fears of rocking the boat, being called out, not liked, or ostracized are real and should not be minimized. Your team members will disengage and become passive which is detrimental to any organization. We can’t serve the patient population if we aren’t problem-solving.

Psychological safety is not only important to our teammates and our work environment but also to safeguard the people who depend on us. As a team member and as a servant to the patient population, we cannot shrug our shoulders when faced with wrongdoings and say, “it is best that I keep quiet” or “it is not my problem.” We then become part of the problem, acting complicit in the danger through silence.

Gary Pisano, Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development at Harvard Business School says, “psychological safety is an organizational climate in which individuals feel they can speak truthfully and openly about problems without fear of reprisal . . . unvarnished candor is critical to innovation because it is the means by which ideas evolve and improve.”

We need to create spaces where everyone feels comfortable to speak up when something doesn’t look right or feel right. It's in our best interests to be informed, yet despite our tools and resources, we may be deterring communication rather than facilitating it! We have seen enough data that demonstrates more diverse terms are more creative, productive, and drive innovation. Without psychological safety, team members will be hesitant to share ideas, learn from missteps, and bring awareness to legitimate issues. By creating an inclusive and safe environment that lessens stress and fears, the team, the organization, and the patient population will benefit from cognizant assessments, innovative cooperation, driven colleagues, and improved execution.

And, please remember, you don’t have to be profound, a superhero or a rockstar every time you contribute or share. Whatever you say, is just fine. We just need you to be present and for you to be you. 

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