A Harvard professor says a hardwired psychological impulse can sabotage you at work

Office meeting‘HA0521-031’ by highwaysengland, © 2016, Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.Teams in which people are afraid to take a risk by speaking up are less successful.

If you’ve ever held a job that involves interacting with other people, you’re likely familiar with the following scenario:

You’re in a meeting and one of your coworkers submits an idea. You think you’ve got a slightly better idea about how things should be done, but you’re terrified, both of insulting your coworker and of humiliating yourself should your boss should down your proposal. So you stay silent.

According to Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, this situation plays out far too often. It can prevent you from achieving your full potential, and it can keep your business team and your company from success.

We are almost hardwired to be worried about the impression we make on others,” Edmondson said in an interview with Business Insider.

Our fear of embarrassment when we suggest a different way of doing things could be a result of evolution, Edmondson said. Millions of years ago, we might have gotten kicked out of the tribe or even killed. Even our socialisation in grade school influences the way we interact at work — we’re afraid that people won’t want to be our friend.

Unfortunately, if everyone’s afraid to share their thoughts, the team won’t get very far. On the other hand, the most successful teams are ones that encourage people to speak up, even if they might be wrong.

Edmondson has spent years studying how these successful teams develop, focusing specifically on a phenomenon she calls “psychological safety,” or “a shared belief that team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Her research wields influence even outside the academic domain: When Google recently published a list of the five traits shared by its most successful teams, the first was psychological safety.

Psychologically safe teams, at Google and elsewhere, are able to help people overcome their fear of embarrassment and rejection.

Of course, developing a psychologically safe team environment is hardly easy.

“The major challenges just become counteracting those taken-for-granted instincts to go with more productive and ultimately more fulfilling and engaging responses and behaviours,” Edmondson said, “to promote inquiry and curiosity, and to realise that in fact if I make a mistake or I ask a question, I’m not gonna die and I’m not gonna be humiliated.”

But achieving psychological safety is worth it, Edmondson said. Otherwise, team members spend more time “reading the wind to see whether I should ask that question or offer that idea” than focusing on the work itself.

“You’re spending an inappropriate amount of time keeping yourself safe rather than meeting your goals,” she said.

In a psychologically safe team environment, people are less concerned with managing impressions and more focused on the possibilities and the contributions that their coworkers are making.

So how do you go about achieving psychological safety?

For leaders, it’s important to emphasise that everybody’s input matters, and that there are areas that still require explanation. Acknowledge your own fallibility by explaining that you might miss something, so you need the team’s help. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions.

Edmondson said that creating psychological safety isn’t just the duty of the team leader, though they perhaps bear the brunt of the responsibility. Individual team members’ behaviours also play an important role in shaping the climate, which is why it’s important to show respect for and interest in your colleagues.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely that the human impulses to conform to the majority and to stay silent when you’ve got something to say will disappear anytime soon. But simply being aware that these barriers to success and innovation exist can help leaders and their team members work to eventually eliminate them.

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