The reality of hierarchical social systems is that people hold deeply ingrained, taken-for-granted beliefs that it’s dangerous to speak up or disagree with those in power… It’s up to leaders to foster the climate of psychological safety required to overcome that reluctance.
Days before January 28, 1986, as NASA was making its final preparations for the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Allan McDonald, an engineer on the project, realized something was wrong. There was a cold snap surrounding Merritt Island, Florida, where the Kennedy Space Center was located. Temperature on launch day was forecasted at 20 degrees colder than during any previous launch.
McDonald worried that the cold would prevent O-ring seals within the shuttle’s rocket boosters from functioning properly, possibly bringing catastrophic damage to the ship. He brought his concern to NASA and refused to sign off on the launch recommendation report — a move that could jeopardize his career.
But NASA’s high-level managers were suffering from “go-fever.” They were in a rush to launch on deadline for fear of losing federal funding. They dismissed McDonald’s warnings and went ahead with the launch. McDonald watched in horror as his predication came to pass. Less than two minutes after launch, the Challenger exploded, killing everyone on board. The cause of the tragedy, a post-mortem investigation revealed, was malfunctioning O-rings.
Although we tend to regard incidents like these as freak accidents at the time, history shows that in many well-known organizational disasters, failures, and mistakes, there’s almost always an Allan McDonald — someone who thinks, “Uh-oh, I have a bad feeling about this.”
As a manager, it’s imperative — even a matter of life and death at times — that you not only listen to concerns but make it easy for people to speak up.
Are you approachable?
Here’s the problem: Even if you strive to be open and available, the power of your role has an outsized effect on another’s behavior. Power tends to shut people down, and you’re often not aware that it’s happening. If you’re a leader, you are dependent on the information and ideas others bring. You need people to speak up. You can’t afford to have them shut down.
For the better part of the last 5 years, I have conducted research on positive and negative uses of power, surveying hundreds of leaders, managers, and those who work with and for them, across numerous organizations and industries. The data gathered helped create a leadership assessment to help leaders use their power effectively.
One of the most important behaviors the research revealed was approachability. Approachable leaders create an atmosphere in which people feel safe to bring in new ideas, and to ask for help and guidance.
Amy Edmundson, a Harvard Professor of Leadership and Management whose work centers on teams, describes the importance of approachability as psychological safety: a shared belief among team members that it is interpersonally safe to risk speaking up. And Google’s Project Aristotle, which sought to discover the secret of the most effective teams, concluded that what separated the highest performing teams from the rest of the pack was the presence of psychological safety, which the company defined as the belief that no one would be mocked, punished, or embarrassed for asking questions, offering new ideas, or making mistakes.
How safe is it to speak up?
Psychological safety is not just about friendliness or openness. Feeling safe to speak up, to disagree with the majority (or with the leader) can possibly save lives, as we saw with the NASA Challenger space shuttle explosion.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, cites research on the connection between how crew members related across power divides in airline crashes, showing that in a majority of airline crashes, junior crew members who noticed something amiss didn’t speak up or didn’t persist because they were afraid to challenge authority. Now, airlines routinely train airline crews in Crew Resource Management, which instructs teams on power and communication.
Similarly, Atul Gawande writes in The Checklist Manifesto that operating room errors decreased by using a checklist, which circumvents the hierarchy and intimidation factor normally present between surgeons and nurses. A checklist allows a medical team to double-check procedures without leaving it to nurses to challenge the doctor’s authority.
What does this all mean for leaders? It means that one component of using power effectively is your capacity to create conditions for others to speak up and approach you — particularly when bringing bad news or raising an unpopular opinion — without fear of retribution.
Making it safe to speak up
1. Watch your nonverbal communication. It’s not what you say, but what you do. It’s a well-known fact that we communicate much more nonverbally than we do verbally. When it comes to power, those in lower rank positions are experts in your nonverbal communication — their livelihood and wellbeing depend on it. People are tuned into the boss’ mood. They are keenly aware of when you frown or roll your eyes. They pay attention to when you’re looking happy, displeased, or just checked out.
You can encourage people to knock on your door or ask questions, but if you don’t make eye contact when they speak to you, are constantly checking your devices, or seem impatient, they’ll follow those implicit signals regardless of what you explicitly say.
2. Be present! Everyone takes their cues from the leader. If you spend an entire meeting checking and answering emails and texts, everyone else will be glued to their devices as well. If it’s your meeting, or you want others to participate, then close your laptop, put away your phone, and be present. If you’ve asked someone to make a presentation or deliver some information, and you don’t give them your full attention, you’re telling them (and everyone else in the room) that you don’t really care, and by extension, that what they have to offer isn’t that important.
3. Practice active listening. Just because you’re hearing what the other says doesn’t mean you’re listening to that person. Even if you are listening, don’t assume the other person will know. Ask questions, nod, and make eye contact. Give verbal signals like “uh huh” and “I see.” Check your understanding by asking questions and summarizing what you heard. Active listening also includes verbally appreciating people for their contribution. Make it a habit to say, “I appreciate the perspective,” or, “Thank you, that’s helpful.”
4. Invite others to speak. It’s not enough to let others have the floor; the power of your role can make it difficult for some people to speak up. Make it a practice to notice who has and who hasn’t spoken in meetings. Invite others to speak and ask those who haven’t spoken to share their ideas. Ask people what they think. This doesn’t mean putting people on the spot — it’s not meant to challenge them to speak, but to make sure you and others aren’t missing anything important.
5. Seek out other points of view — Subject your ideas to critique to ensure you’re not overlooking things. Remember, you need others to speak up because you really may be missing key information. The less often others speak around you, the likelier you and others are to believe in a false sense that the leader’s ideas are the best ideas. Don’t give into a false sense of security in your unchallenged intelligence, or you won’t know when you’ve missed something until it’s too late.
Wielding power effectively is about understanding the dynamic context and consequences of your actions. Truly powerful leaders know that there’s no single source of truth or authority in their positions. Just as their teams trust them make decisions, these leaders trust in their teams for the information necessary to lead.