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What is the price of psychological safety?

What is the price of psychological safety? What is the cost of its absence?

Most people prefer to work in a setting where they have a sense of belonging. So, it is wonderful to see research from a mega wealthy company like Google supporting the fact that psychological safety on a team is one of the most important elements for innovation.  Eliminating the fear of being ridiculed opened the way for team members to bring up questions and ideas that led to breakthrough inventions.

It is fairly clear that this sense of belonging correlates to employee engagement. So, the quality of relationships in an organization influences the level of safety performance, quality, innovation and profits.

Given this evidence, I’ve asked myself why aren’t executives and managers jumping on board to create and strengthen positive relationships? I suspect a couple of reasons. One is because it requires placing the time for relationship building at the top of their priorities. The other is that no matter how high we are on hierarchy we still have some fear of being seen and found lacking. Yet, perhaps there is a deeper reason baked into the deepest core of our beliefs about survival and power.

Could there be a deeper reason that managers have a hard time prioritizing relationship building?

Humanistic psychologists like A. Maslow, W. Kahn, and A. Edmondson made us aware that the need to belong—to be in relationship—is a survival need. Thought leaders like George Mead and Ervin Goffman helped us realize that we would not realize we existed if it weren’t for the presence of others. As a result we spend every moment managing our image—how we appear to others. Goffman in particular focused on how we manage our social interactions to portray a specific image of ourselves. We also use that information to determine how to treat others.

The lesson seems so clear. Learn how to respect people’s need to belong and manage your social interactions in a way that shows respect for the other’s social status regardless of position, color or wealth.  In so doing you will be breaking down barriers to communication and trust. The question is then what?

The question is then what?

Googlefaces this question now. A story in the LA Times (Nov. 8, 2019) reveals that employees learned that “the company’s board of directors had approved a $90-million payout to Andy Rubin, a former executive, despite finding that a subordinate’s sexual misconduct claims against him were credible…Days later, on Nov. 1, 2018, Stapleton and 20,000 other Google workers around the world poured out of their offices in protest….

It could be said that the wealth and psychological safety of Google’s employees led to an unexpected path of political activism, which spread to the other tech giants:

“At Amazon, Microsoft and Google, thousands of workers have joined protests against doing business with oil and gas companies. Hundreds of Amazon workers called for their employer to stop selling facial recognition software to law enforcement. Contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have inspired petitions within Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce. At Apple, Chief Executive Tim Cook was forced to defend blocking an app used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong to avoid police.”

Google executives face unintended consequences that are affecting their bottom line.

Google executives face unintended consequences that are affecting their bottom line. No doubt we would experience the same if we followed through on providing the conditions for inclusion, innovation and a personal sense of security. When you remove the traditional restraints to keep people in “their place,” you liberate human creativity and you can’t control the direction. This is the law of complexity and chaos or complex responsive processes.

Culture is humanity’s way of controlling this phenomenon. This is exactly why society has customs and norms to control what people can say and do. This is also why we have revolutions.

Personally I am not yet afraid of what this powerful employee led force will do next. I am afraid of the response from those in power.  We’re watching the response in Hong Kong. I was 19 years old when the National Guard killed three Kent State students during the anti-war protests. Suddenly the movement was over and the Baby Boomer generation turned to self-improvement. I can’t change the world; let me try to change myself.

Join the dialogue

I’m hoping for a different outcome this time. Can the powers that be allow the Google experiment to continue? Can we envision a world where wealth and psychological freedom is more equally distributed? If ever a group of people existed that could figure out this balance, this looks like we are the one. I’m rooting for us.

You can read more about my views on psychological safety in my new book, The Relationship Factor in Safety leadership. I am starting a list of folks who would be interesting in gathering to have honest dialogue on these issues and their practical applications to improving wellbeing and business results. I had a conversation with Todd Conklin about having an Open Space conference, but we don’t want to restrict it to safety professionals. We need to have an inclusive dialogue and learn from all those who are on the same path to learning and liberating the human potential. Interested? Contact me here at


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