In February 2016, the NY Times ran an article by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Charles Duhigg. Excerpted in large part from his terrific book, Better, Smarter, Faster, the article chronicled “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” The article emphasized a concept pioneered by Harvard professor Amy Edmonson, that of “psychological safety,” which she defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’
Where a workplace enjoys psychological safety, there exists ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmonson writes, and “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
Duhigg’s article was widely read and appears to have been influential in bringing Edmonson’s research to the attention of many — in business and government — who have since focused some of their own attention on how trust dynamics shape performance within their own organizations. Or of those that they oversee…
Consider the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which has supervisory responsibility for the UK banking sector. In the last year or so, the FCA has emphasized the significance it places on assessments of psychological safety in the workplace at the firms it oversees. This is part of the regulator’s increasing focus on firm culture as a driver of employee behavior. Where the workplace is not characterized by psychological safety, the FCA contends, employees will be afraid to say something when they observe unethical behavior — or worse. The FCA seeks to encourage a “speak up culture” https://www.fca.org.uk/culture-and-governance/psychological-safety.
It must be a bitter turn of events that, three years after Duhigg’s NY Times piece, it has now become necessary for the NLRB to order Google to permit its employees to speak their minds. Without internal trust among employees, “speak up culture” is lost. While that may imply increased “conduct risk” in the context of bank supervision, it is important as well for any firm that relies on “knowledge workers” to collaborate in the shared cause of promoting “innovation.” That is, it’s important for just about everyone, and particularly for those in the tech sector.
While the NLRB’s order may be justified, it is likely to be ineffective and perhaps even counter-productive. We know this thanks to our experience with whistleblower protection laws, which were beefed up in the US in the wake of the Enron fraud. Whistleblowers fear retaliation from management — rightly, experience shows. But more important perhaps is the ostracism of peers.
Without peer support for their actions, employees will be reluctant to speak up, whether this is to report a wrong or to offer the critical creative ideas that lead to innovation and improved firm performance. With such peer support — that is, with trust — they can transform their organizations. As such, an appreciation for the importance of workplace trust dynamics is essential, both to mitigating downside risk, and to capturing upside opportunity. Google may need to relearn this.