Organizational Excellence through Psychological Safety
If, as Quality Management Professionals, we are tasked with achieving Organizational Excellence, then I believe it is incumbent upon the Quality Profession to promote Psychological Safety within the workplace and customer interactions.  This was recently proven to be the top contributor to successful, high-performing teams.  I am sharing an interesting report from a Google blog, highlighting the five characteristics of successful, high-performing teams, for which I invite careful review and commentary.

https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

At the top of the list is Psychological Safety, which was ranked above more objective criteria including Dependability, Structure & Clarity, and the Meaning and Impact of Work.

This aligns with studies and publications by psychological experts like Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking Fast and Slow).  I know that Luigi Sille‍  and Amanda Foster‍  would concur with the idea of ensuring that team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable.

In our pursuit of Organizational Excellence, we must find ways to help our teams harness and leverage our respective capabilities without diminishing or disparaging our contributions.  We also need to overcome our various biases and fallacies, which are prevalent within compromised work environments.


 
31 Replies
Luigi Sille
110 Posts

Daniel Zrymiak‍ , I totally agree. Psychological safety in the workplace is about providing a safe space for employees to work, express, and be themselves.

Employees are the most valuable asset an organization can have, but if you look around they always come at the second place.

Why? I would love to know that.
Dear Daniel,
Interesting reference to the Google learning. It reflects what the early practitioners of the then emerging "participative management" movement was first promoting: the works of Mary Parker Follett, Lillian Gilbreth, and Alan Mogensen. When Japan started to try to learn about the "why" behind their defeat by the American war machine, they translated the works of psychologists even more than writings of engineers and scientists! In his 1991 book Hoshin Kanri, Dr. Yoji Akao provided a list of these translated works and dates when they were available for study in Japan - if I recall correctly, in the decade of the 1950s most of the "then-standard" psychology books were translated into Japanese for study by QC Circles who were attempting to become more sufficient in the art of learning to discover issues in their work that could become opportunities for improvement. In 1981, the division between a participative team-based quality movement and the more analytical community created the schism that separated the Association for Quality and Participation (AQP) from the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC - which is now ASQ). In 2001, the two organizations were merged back into ASQ. The reason for the separation? The technical community did not appreciate what the meaning of "being human" implied for the work of teams in solving problems. They basically believed that if you had the tools, then you could solve the problem. We have done a poor job within ASQ of reintegrating the wisdom from the "soft side of quality" into the mainstream analytical processes that we apply in our work. As David Kearns, the Xerox CEO who was the instigator of its early 1980s turnaround, commented about their "Leadership through Quality" program: "the soft stuff is really the hard stuff!" We do need to do a much better job with this!
Best regards,
Greg
Dear Luigi,
I think that the question you posed is insightful: If employees are proclaimed by management to be the most valuable asset in their organization, then why do they always come in second place with respect to management priorities? 
I have some thoughts that this rephrased question stirred in my mind. First, what is in first place? Without a doubt for most of the management teams, their first place consideration is financial, measured in terms of shareholder value, stock price, return on net assets, return on capital employed, revenue growth, gross profits - or some other related metric. The problem starts at this point as "employee value" is an intrinsic indicator it is and not part of the same financial measurement system. Thus, "value" does not equal "value" in these two schemes of understanding. When making the "value" judgment about employees from a financial viewpoint, we often reduce value to terms of "labor productivity" or financial output per unit of time as normalized by the number of workers and the investment required in salaries for that same time period. Clearly, the "value" is not based on the "quality characteristics of workers" or their "potential to contribute" or their "innovative capabilities" or their "capacity to learn"  or their "future value" to the organization.
When we change measurement systems and do not operationally define what we mean by the terms we use, then it is possible to create chaos and confusion. We have measurement systems for indicating the productive value of capital investments but we do not have agreement on how to value the "intellectual capital" within our organizations - such as the "capacity to learn and adapt" or the "capacity to decide" in complex situational scenarios. Thus, management chooses what they are held accountable for as their principle decision criteria - the more "tangible financial success indicators" rather than the "soft stuff" that they can't get their heads around as easily.
Not a nice answer; but, in my experience, it is what happens.
Best regards,
Greg
Dear Daniel,
One further thought. When W. Edwards Deming proposed his "System of Profound Knowledge" (SPK) in his 1992 book "The New Economics," he labeled the fourth element in his SPK structure as "Psychology." His comments though concentrated on his personal  objections to the subjectivity implicit in performance reviews which are a basis for establishing most schemes for setting rewards and making compensation decisions in organizations.
However, he could have developed this idea much more richly to show how psychology reinforces the development of a theory of knowledge about organizational performance or how it interprets the human interfaces within the system or how it is a critical source of variation in data collected about performance. Psychology in this SPK should include both relationship management within teams as well as stimulation of motivation by management and decision-making processes of the organization (e.g., Kahneman's ideas will apply here).
Taking a deeper look into Deming's SPK was the objective of my doctoral research which expanded Deming's SPK to become a more objective, scientifically-based "Theory of Profound Knowledge" with the intellectual precedents of each of his four categories expounded upon. the concepts initiated in his SPK definitions. I am delving deeper into many of these ideas in the series of twelve webinars that QMD is producing on the subject of "Managing for Quality." If you wish further communication with me offline, then please send an email to me at: greg@excellence.fi. 
Best regards,
Greg
Luigi Sille
110 Posts
Dear Gregory Watson‍, thanks for the answer. That is what I figured out. It's the year 2020, and management nowadays is still focusing on short term returns instead of sustainable long term gains.

When workers do not feel as part of the organization (valued), it can and will lead to a high employee turnover rate. And normally your best employees are the first ones leaving. This can have a negative impact on any organization.

Thanks again for your answer Gregory.
Regards, 
Luigi

 
Dear Luigi,
You've got it exactly right - implications also!
Best regards,
Greg
A few (recurring) thoughts:
  1. Don't compare where we/you work to Google (not that this is being done here, overtly, but...) They developed their culture from scratch, they're well capitalized, they took a people-centric view of workplace in their early years (and they have since become another large, institutional employer, at least in my experience.) I also have to say that they continue to expand their knowledge and use of people-centric practices in spite of their size.
  2. Fostering psychological safety is a prerequisite to effective (let alone high-performing) teams. The partnership is between:
    1. Leadership
    2. Management
    3. Teams, and one or more of these (usually all 3) groups will have vastly different views and experience (let alone pressures for results.) Until there is agreed upon normalization, teams take the worst of it (so to speak) as they're directly accountable for results.
  3. Leadership in many organizations remains oblivious of their role and responsibility for successful teams (especially "development" teams; developing anything)
I believe (and have believed, for several decades) that ASQ is uniquely qualified to help improve conditions for teams (including psychoogical safety) but it remains almost entirely a "manufacturing" oriented organization.
 
"First, what is in first place? Without a doubt for most of the management teams, their first place consideration is financial, measured in terms of shareholder value, stock price, return on net assets, return on capital employed, revenue growth, gross profits - or some other related metric." - You are much kinder than myself. I believe what is in first place for most is "self preservation", and I regret having (and seeing) this belief in action.
It should be mentioned here that Deming advocated for this decades ago through his 14 points and SoPK.
Jerry Rice
47 Posts
Luigi Sille:

Daniel Zrymiak‍ , I totally agree. Psychological safety in the workplace is about providing a safe space for employees to work, express, and be themselves.

Employees are the most valuable asset an organization can have, but if you look around they always come at the second place.

Why? I would love to know that.

Luigi,

I think the problems could start when an organization considers employees as "assets" (valuable or not).  This implies they are owned by the company. In the strictest terms assets are facilities, physical equipment, inventory, cash, and things such as that appearing on a balance sheet. I guess in some cases an organization's knowledge or intellectual property is considered an asset. If this is the case, would being treated like an "asset" be appealing? Getting an asset ID and maybe a make and model designation?

I think organizations that understand the PEOPLE ARE THE ORGANIZATION, not assets, can begin to more effectively utilize some of the concepts presented in this thread. Whenever I see a company talk about what valuable assets their employees are it makes me wonder if they really get it. 

Just my two cents. 

Jerry

Luigi Sille
110 Posts
Yes Jerry Rice,‍ I agree. People, employees ARE the organization and when you have such an organizational culture in place, employees will show up, 
follow through, and stick with it.




 

 "Psychological safety in the workplace is about providing a safe space for employees to work, express, and be themselves". Psychological safety in the workplace must be established for (hopefully experienced) members of the quality /production/ engineering management team to prevent any repercussions later. Having worked in a fast paced manufacturing environment where shutting down the production line would cause, huge financial losses, a decision should not be made with out the authority of a team of decision makers even if it is a temporary one.  As a member of that  team and bearer of bad news one is always criticized because you didn't do your job in controlling Quality? That has a psychological effect on you over time, however that is another subject that can be discussed later. Suffice to say being in truck manufacturing for many years provided a unique experience in how not to manage quality which I will never forget.

Hello, Luigi Sille‍  , Gregory Watson‍  , Jerry Rice‍  , Dwight Carroll‍  , Mustafa Shraim‍  , Gregory Tutunjian‍ , and others who are interested in the merits of a psychologically safe environment.

TL/DR: If a rational person perceives that they are among potentially hostile or malicious colleagues or environments, their sense of risk aversion and loss aversion will make them less inclined to contribute at peak levels, opting to remain complicit and malleable to the prevailing methods and approaches.

One possible precedent predates Deming by approximately two centuries.  Daniel Bernoulli proposed a theory in 1738, accounting for marginal utility and risk aversion in decision-making.  Risk aversion represents the propensity of an individual to accept a lower but more certain outcome, representing a nominal payoff, rather than persist for the optimal return.

In the case of psychologically unsafe or hostile environments, the payoff is often as modest as getting through yet another day without encountering abuse, antagonism, unwarranted criticism, or other controversies.  The energies and attention needed to safeguard against such conflict and calamity often comes at the expense of candid disclosure and thoughtful collaboration.

If the "payoff" for making suggestions or initiating improvements is negative due to a punitive corporate culture, more utility can be gained by adapting to unfortunate circumstances and not "making waves". In such environments, progress and innovation are suppressed and overall team performance suffers.  Taking initiative becomes a mode of disruptive counter-culture rebellions, instead of a natural progression of incremental "kaizen-like" improvements.

Prospect theory, as developed by Kahneman and Tversky, highlights loss aversion.  Consider the fear of loss within our current work environments: loss of promotional opportunities, denial of bonuses and perks, reduction of stature and prestige, subversion of personal authority and influence.  Often the fear of loss is worse than the actual losses or maladies that may be inflicted.  Loss Aversion, which also emanates from psychologically unsafe environments, leads to irrational choices which include tampering, confounding, obfuscation, and interference with the truth and transparency which should ideally report outcomes in a precise and accurate manner.


 
Dear Mustafa,
Later on Deming commented that his 14 points must be interpreted in light of his SPK. This elevated the importance of profound knowledge as a concept above his 14 points. Deming did a poor job in explaining his SPK. He did not provide any precedents for where it came from or operationally define the terms. He also did not identify what is the opposite of "Profound" knowledge so this concept could be treated scientifically as hypothesis and rejected. These were all elements that I addressed during research for my doctoral dissertation. If you wish a copy, please email me at: greg@excellence.fi.
Best regards,
Greg
Dear Daniel,
it is good to bring both risk-based considerations and prospect theory into this discussion!
Well done!
Best regards,
Greg
Great discussion.
Just a brief comment after reading through everyone's thoughts. I believe it to be a 2 way street. IF as managers/employers companies work to engage employees through various programs or communications to place value on people.. Foundations are being laid, although many programs are not successful. Regardless, with that foundation the psychological aspect becomes the responsibility of manager/employer AND the employee. People are not just assets, people are people. I believe folks do not want to feel like an asset. they want to feel like a contributor if they are not in it only for a pay check. I could be wrong, but that is my two cents for today.

Scott
Sandra Low
1 Posts
Thanks Dan. A very good read. Is this the same as a toxic environment?
Hi Sandra Low‍ 

I see the pursuit of psychological safety as a countermeasure for toxic environments.  

Consider the toxic practice of "gaslighting" a critic, to make others question the motives and credibility of someone offering a perspective or making an inquiry.  Suddenly, the focus shifts away from the merits of the discussion to the person who dares to ask a question or offer a suggestion.  This deters internal accountability, limiting opportunities for growth and innovation.

I will also invoke Deming and his critiques of slogans and exhortations.  When discussions are closed with empty talking points and slogans, the thoughtful process of discovery is deliberately suppressed in favour of expediency.

 
Dear Dan,

Although I agree that often "gaslighting" has been used, Deming was also capable of doing this when he did not appreciate the ideas of his "competitive guru's" in the quality movement. Most notably, he did this with Phil Crosby. His negative feelings against slogans and exhortations to improve definitely targeted Crosby. However, most Japanese companies use an annual slogan to focus its people on what is critically important in the strategic changes for the coming planning period. This is not an empty slogan, but represents a viable way to create a mnemonic that reminds people what is important to think about improving. However, you are absolutely correct insofar as the need to avoid frivolous and meaningless activities under the guise of quality improvement. Remember a fundamental of the initial Toyota Guiding Principles established at its foundations was the principle to "avoid frivolity" at work!
Best regards,
Greg
Hi Greg: 

When will the webinar series on Managing for Quality be available?
Thanks;
Patricia Pope