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How to Foster Psychological Safety – Sage Advice: Episode 44

By March 28, 2019July 25th, 2020No Comments

On an island runway in Tenerife, Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten was impatiently waiting for takeoff for his jumper flight to Gran Canaria – one of the other Canary Islands. There had been numerous delays, and now that the passengers had finally re-boarded, he was getting antsy to take off.

His First Officer, Klaas Meurs, was discussing clearance with the tower. Annoyed with the delays, Captain van Zanten set to delivering impatient, curt quips to Meurs – interrupting his communication with the tower. We can tell from the audio that Meurs is starting to feel less safe to talk directly to his Captain: his exchanges become shorter, more vague, and his attention is more fragmented. Captain van Zanten even start revving the throttle and inching the plane forward. “Wait a minute, we don’t have an ATC clearance,” Meurs says. “No, I know that,” van Zanten replies, “Go ahead, ask.”

As Meurs begins reading the flight clearance back to the tower, van Zanten interrupts him with a harsh, “We’re going.” The tower responds with “OK.” Due to a tragically inopportune squelch on the radio (interference from the Pan Am radio that lasted three seconds), Captain van Zanten didn’t hear the next, crucial part of the message: “Stand by for take-off, I will call you.” But both Meurs and the KLM Flight Engineer, Willem Schreuder, knew something wasn’t right; yet they say nothing.

SCHREUDER: Is hij er niet af dan? [Is he not clear then?]

VAN ZANTEN: Wat zeg je? [What do you say?]

SCHREUDER: Is hij er niet af, die Pan American? [Is he not clear, that Pan American?]

VAN ZANTEN: (emphatic) Jawel. [Oh yes.]

Despite their intuition, neither challenged Captain van Zanten. Moments later, the Pan Am crew spotted the rapidly approaching KLM plan and made a desperate attempt to slam the throttle and advance the plane off into the grass. van Zanten, his crew, and the 234 passengers also attempted to divert the collision, pulling back to raise the plane off the ground. This forced a devastating tail-strike to the Pan Am’s fuselage, ripping the centre of the plane apart. The KLM plane, briefly airborne, ingested shatter debris into the inner left engine, igniting both planes (now with full fuel loads) into a fiery blaze that took hours to subdue. The death toll was a combined 583 victims.

This incident was the deadliest accident in aviation history, and became instrumental in developing a standardised language protocol for air traffic control. But it also acts as a cautionary tale to a much more poignant issue: the need for psychological safety.

And while the phrase “psychological safety” may drudge up the Kumbaya vibe of being at a summer leadership retreat, its importance is far from hokey: it creates personal, autonomous accountability among your employees. Psychological safety involves feeling comfortable (and even incentivised) to speak up, ask questions, and otherwise involve yourself beyond your basic role. It is the emotional and mental conditions necessary to say something when you witness a problem – irrespective of your position on the totem pole, and regardless of the nature of the objection. And the situation need not be as dire as it is on the tarmac or in the operating room; the inability to speak up when you see something is the reason behind countless deaths and injuries in a variety of industries. At its worst people lose their lives; at its best, you begin to fail as a company from the inside out.

Lots of companies tout a culture of openness and transparency; that is, until they hear things they don’t like. This article from the Harvard Business Review delves into more of the underlying reasons why this cognitive dissonance exists, but the main takeaway is that your culture doesn’t walk the talk…. So how do you begin to foster a culture of transparency and accountability?

At the ATD-ICE conference last year, we met up with Lisa Dahmus – who is a consultant and expert on psychological safety. We asked for a simplified framework in order to share with followers of our blog, Sage Advice, and she shared the following tips to ensure success:

1. Increase openness in the group.

Inviting employees to share more about themselves, talk about their experiences, and express how their feeling gives you a good sense of what barriers they encounter when faced with conflict (and what prevents them from speaking up). Simply inviting them to share about themselves, and receiving their offering in a nonjudgemental way, sends the message that their perspectives and feelings are important and valid.

2. Better qualify what constitutes psychological safety.

Create some standardized language within your unique culture for how you and your team would define psychologically safe conditions. What features would be included? How could your team engender a culture that felt mentally and emotionally safe? What potential roadblocks might derail your efforts to maintain open and receptive dialogue? What conditions could you put in place to deal with retaliation? Creating a list of action steps to move toward psychological safety, as well as variables that could potentially upend your efforts, will help you develop a game plan to respond effectively.

3. Inspire employees to create their own “norms.”

How to Foster psychological safety define the conditions on their terms, and in ways that promote self-direction. As mentioned above, it’s important to take a nonjudgemental stance and truly listen to their needs. Usually, people begin to freak out about how to implement all these good ideas, but if you can hear everything your employees have to say, they will often have solutions in mind they can implement themselves. How to foster psychological safety this keeps the onus off of you, and gives employees a greater sense of autonomy.

You can watch her interview below:

Finally, an additional resource that I would highly recommend is Amy Edmondson’s new book, The Fearless Organization, which contains a wealth of information and pertinent stories (including the aviation disaster above). It will help get you started on implementing a strategy, as well as provide you with enough evidence to get buy-in from those that need it.


Lisa Dahmus:                   I define psychological safety as a feeling or belief that you’re safe to take interpersonal risks, which means that you can ask a question that you have, you can push back if somebody has an opinion you don’t agree with, raise issues that you have or concerns that you have without feeling that you’re going to suffer consequences. That’s important in the workplace because without it, people won’t be open about issues. They also won’t be able to be creative because they might be withholding themselves and not putting ideas out there for fear of ramifications to how people view them.

So psychological safety is critical for learning because learning requires asking questions. And without psychological safety, people don’t feel comfortable asking questions. Learning is dependent on people feeling open. And without psychological safety, it’s likely people will feel defensive or scared, and that short circuits the learning process. There are three steps to creating a psychologically safe environment in a meeting or in a training program, and the first is to increase the openness of the group by just giving them opportunities to share more about themselves.

This creates a level of energy and a different kind of bonding between the group, but then enables them to do the second step, which is to better understand what psychological safety is and how it enables a workplace or a meeting room or a training session that is safe for them to ask questions and to be creative. And then the third is with the openness and awareness, they’re ready to work together and create norms, so they’re the ones that are creating that safe environment.

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