When I talk about facets of organizational change enablement, I tend to steer clear of terms like psychological safety. In a culture that has grown overly therapeutic (in my opinion), I gravitate to terms that are more rooted in logic than feeling. However, cohorts of Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2012) are all about feeling. And they are obsessed with safety. So regardless of what we call it—psychological safety, respectful communication, or simply common decency—having it ingrained in corporate culture is critical for ensuring team members are focused, engaged, innovative, and productive.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety. She defines it as, “A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” In a recent webinar, Charles Vivian, managing director at North Highland consulting, described psychological safety as, “The extent to which team members feel safe to speak up, take risks, and bring diverse perspectives, trusting that it will not be held against them.”
In this postmodern world of constant change when consistent knowledge sharing is a must, all organizational change practitioners should evaluate how free the people in their organizations feel to express their thoughts and opinions. As Edmondson says in her book, The Fearless Organization (2019): “No twenty-first-century organization can afford to have a culture of fear.”
The Case for Psychological Safety
Essentially, the goal of psychological safety is to eliminate (or minimize) interpersonal fear. As humans, we are constantly assessing and negotiating people’s perceptions of us as we interact throughout the day. This is particularly true in the workplace where the consequences of saying something that is misconstrued or seen as contradictory to those in authority could damage reputations, relationships, and even careers. This ongoing, internal negotiation and the fear it incites is emotionally and physically draining and is shown to negatively impact performance.
The logic behind the drive to create the fearless organization is grounded in neuroscience; research shows that “fear consumes cognitive resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that process new information. When we experience fear,” said Edmondson in a recent Forbes interview, “we are less able to engage in analytic thinking, creative insight and problem-solving.”
By eliminating fear, we create an environment that fosters learning, innovation, and growth—all characteristics that are vital to high-performing individuals, teams, and organizations.
iGen’ers are now in their mid-20s; the oldest are transitioning into the workforce. So now is the time for leaders to ensure the workplace is free of fear and optimized for collaboration.
The iGen Challenge to Creating a Psychologically Safe Environment
iGen’ers typically share three characteristics that make creating a work environment that is psychologically safe especially challenging:
- Their struggle to manage self-talk and interpersonal communication in a professional environment.
- Their tendency to avoid risk in order to maintain a sense of safety.
- obsession with safety, which causes them to avoid risk
Organizations can help iGen’ers master self-talk and interpersonal communication so they can collaborate more effectively in the workplace.
iGen’ers are particularly in tune with their image and how it is being perceived every day, in every situation, across multiple channels. The necessity of creating a personal brand is ingrained in their psyche, as they have been monitoring and regulating how they portray themselves and what image their followers perceive since they created their first social media account, most before the age of 12. Yet managing their inner voice (self-talk) and negotiating relationships (interpersonal communication) is becoming more challenging with each generation born in the postmodern world of globalization and technology.
Sample Scenario: As iGen team members attempt to promote a personal brand at work, their behaviors can result in some awkward situations. Think about the new employee who appears to completely understand an enterprise system but struggles and does not ask for support. The self-talk goes something like this: I am a digital native, so I am a techie. My manager hired me for this job, so she expects me to figure out the system by myself. If I ask for help, I will be admitting my incompetency and may lose my job. The reality is, enterprise systems are seldom intuitive, and when employees are afraid to ask the right colleague the right questions, the results can be humiliating and counterproductive.
Try This: Employers can bridge the disconnect between authenticity and the desire to promote a personal brand by providing new employees with a clear picture of workplace norms and policies during the onboarding process and guidance as to what professionalism looks like in their particular industry and unique corporate culture. Educate new iGen employees as to the importance of interacting face-to-face with co-workers of all ages to build relationships, garner support, and identify potential mentors. And remind existing employees, particularly those of older generations, that they were young once and the new kid on the block. Supporting young employees by engaging them in honest conversations about workplace norms and generational differences will go a long way in building their confidence and ability to share information in an environment of psychological safety.
Dr. Jean Twenge, social psychologist and foremost expert on generational values, describes iGen teens and twenty-somethings as less likely to take risks than previous generations. They are less likely to party, less likely to have sex, and less likely to drink alcohol, for example. That means fewer high schoolers are participating in risky behaviors that present a danger to overall health (which is good); but it also means that when iGen’ers enter the workforce, they are less likely to push the limits of social, emotional, and intellectual growth.
Sample Scenario: Managers who are highly risk-averse tend to isolate their teams, a practice that has its pros and cons. The Director of Quality Assurance at a software development company (I’ll call her Emily) followed this management style. Emily stayed in her lane, which meant her team operated under the radar. Her management style helped her steer clear of conflict (even positive conflict) and keep team members focused. What it did not do, however, was ensure her team was aware of and aligned with evolving business goals and objectives. When individual goals are aligned with business goals, employees are more motivated to innovate and grow with the organization. Emily’s team was safe but siloed.
Try This: The heads down all the time mentality does not work in an era of constant change. Collaboration is mandatory. If Emily had been operating in a fearless organization, in a culture where people are allowed (and even encouraged) to fail, she may not have felt the need to protect the team from the changes going on around them. Instead, she would have engaged with leadership across the organization to explore innovations to business processes while at the same time guiding her team to collaborate and still strive to meet high-level goals and objectives that clearly aligned with their personal and departmental work efforts.
Even though iGen’ers are the safest, most protected children in history, adults are constantly driven to protect them even more. And while parents often think that this level of protection gives young people a heightened sense of security, it actually has the opposite effect. Since parents are protecting their iGen’er children from situations that would force them to face their fears or overcome adversity, young people are growing up less confident with a limited ability to perform tasks independently.
This lack of confidence is intensified by a movement currently underway at colleges and universities that promotes what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt call vindictive protectiveness; in other words, universities are jumping on the bandwagon to protect not only students’ physical wellbeing but also their emotional wellbeing. They are doing so by eliminating words or ideas that might cause them discomfort, turning always speakers whose topics could cause anxiety, and requiring professors to issue trigger warnings for courses that could cause students to have an emotional response.
The result is that mere words are now perceived as a source of danger. When words hurt their feelings or make them anxious, iGen’ers do not address the person or situation; instead, they look for a safe place to retreat and recover.
Sample Scenario: To avoid emotional injury, iGen’ers tend to avoid people who do not agree with them and situations that could trigger an emotional response. This attitude sets up an us vs. them mentality, which causes division and impairs a team’s ability to collaborate. Managers must recognize the need to actively guide the behaviors and attitudes that support a divisive mindset. Managers must become more adept at driving organizational change management practices to create awareness and a desire to collaborate with people who think differently and provide team members with the skills they need to do so.
Try This: There are a number of strategies managers can use to alleviate the negative impacts the emphasis on emotional wellbeing can have on the organization pursuing fearlessness, including the following:
- Raise awareness of generational difference, emphasizing the value that each generation brings to the team.
- Structure teams to include a mix of generations and levels of emotional intelligence, and encourage intergenerational, bi-directional mentoring relationships.
- Demonstrate understanding in regard to emotional wellbeing and be willing to discuss possible corporate resources for helping team members manage anxiety and stress.
Integrating iGen’ers into the Fearless Organization
It is only natural that young people are apprehensive as they transition from academia into the workplace, but for iGen’ers, the fear is more salient. Leaders who are trying to create an environment of psychological safety need to make a connection between what a new employee has experienced and the future state those leaders envision for the company.
An Education Week special report (2020) reveals that 76% of schools use a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) approach to teaching students how to develop self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills. As a result, employers can be confident that iGen’ers have been immersed in a common vocabulary, which includes words such as SMART goals, empathy, growth mindset, community, and so on.
These words translate nicely into a framework for managing inner and interpersonal communication, as well as promoting confidence for growth through risk-taking and for addressing words and ideas that challenge personal viewpoints. In today’s workplace, this framework is known as Emotional Intelligence (EI).
Make the connection for new iGen employees between SEL at school and EI at work, and they will be more prepared to share the company vision of a fearless organization.