Suzanne Vickberg is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner within Deloitte’s Business Chemistry division, which Deloitte uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. In this article she looks at why psychological safety may not be enough to get your team on board.
Have you ever posed a question or challenge to your team, then opened the floor for discussion and heard only the chirping of crickets in response?
Did you wonder why people didn’t speak up?
Hopefully you figured it out, or at least got them talking eventually. But think back and ask yourself, did all team members offer opinions, ideas, or questions? Did anyone remain quiet or contribute less than others? Why might that have occurred? And what might you have lost out on as a result? When no one contributes, it may seem logical to ask whatit is about the situation or environment that’s keeping people quiet. Was the request not clear? Is it not apparent that everyone is welcome to speak? Is the environment inhibiting in some other way? But when some people contribute and others don’t, it may seem equally logical to ask what’s different about the people who remain quiet. And from there, it could be a short leap to assuming that the team environment is conducive to sharing but that some team members demur because of something lacking in them. Maybe they’re not willing to take a risk, or they’re not committed to the team, or they just don’t have anything valuable to contribute.
When no one contributes, it may seem logical to ask what it is about the situation or environment that’s keeping people quiet. Was the request not clear? Is it not apparent that everyone is welcome to speak? Is the environment inhibiting in some other way? But when some people contribute and others don’t, it may seem equally logical to ask what’s different about the people who remain quiet. And from there, it could be a short leap to assuming that the team environment is conducive to sharing but that some team members demur because of something lacking in them. Maybe they’re not willing to take a risk, or they’re not committed to the team, or they just don’t have anything valuable to contribute.
There’s a third option though – the situation or environment is a good fit for inspiring some people to contribute, but not so much for others.
That it’s not about something lacking in those who aren’t contributing, but instead that people are encouraged or discouraged by different things, and that for some people in some environments, staying silent might sometimes be prudent.
It may be that your team is currently working in ways that work for only a portion of your team members and as a result, you’re getting the best from some of them, but not others. And there’s a good chance you may be able to change that.
There are many possible ways in which the characteristics of a team or the environment of a discussion may discourage offering up opinions, ideas, or questions. One of the most commonly cited barriers is a lack of psychological safety, characterised by a belief that speaking up may lead to judgment, embarrassment, or other negative consequences.
Psychological safety has been widely touted as an important factor in the performance of teams – indeed, it has been argued it may be the most important aspect of team dynamics.
And it’s typically framed at the team level, so a team could be considered psychologically safe, unsafe, or somewhere in between.
However, our own research has previously found some people are more likely than others to feel psychologically safe. Specifically, we’ve found differences by business chemistry type, so the same team environment may feel psychologically safe to some, but not to others.
That previous study assessed how safe people may feel but did not explore how those feelings might actually impact their actions.
We have now conducted a new study that addresses the extent to which a lack of psychological safety may discourage some people from contributing their opinions,ideas, or questions to a discussion. It also considers what other conditions they might find discouraging.
We surveyed 28,000 professionals working in hundreds of organisations around the world and across a variety of industries, from C-suite leaders to junior staff members.
We asked about the conditions likely to discourage them from contributing to a group discussion. And we found some strong agreement across professionals, but as we almost always do, we also found some differences between business chemistry types.
Let’s consider why this all matters. How important is it that everyone on your team contributes?
Someone who thinks differently from you may see things you don’t or see them from a different angle. They may think about problems and potential solutions in ways that can shift your own perspective. They might help you see when you’re wrong. Diversity of thought means we have more perspectives on a problem and also more potential solutions to consider. It can lead us to examine issues more thoroughly, articulate our thoughts more clearly, and challenge and test our own and each other’s assumptions. Ultimately, diversity can lead to higher levels of creativity and more effective problem-solving - it can facilitate breakthrough.
But none of this can happen if those differences aren’t voiced. If a team member with a different perspective doesn’t share it with the group, it’s unlikely to help others explore or shift their own thinking.
If someone who sees a unique solution doesn’t suggest it, the rest of the team may never think of it.
When an individual disagrees but does not say so, they won’t challenge the team to examine their assumptions or clarify their arguments. Diversity unexpressed is potential unrealised.