Will psychological safety and mindset be the silver bullet for organisational transformation in 2020 and beyond?

by Alec Grimsley

6 Feb, 2020 at 1:06 pm

As we enter 2020 and the beginning of a new decade, will there be a silver bullet that enables leaders to navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie within their disrupted industries?

Over the coming weeks, I will pen a series of articles exploring how 'Mindset' builds or reduces psychological safety and the influence that has on a leaders ability to play their part in creating a culture that supports transformation at pace.

An organisation's greatest enemy

Unless you've had your head in the sand for the last 20 years, technological and regulatory disruption has been forcing leaders to build more responsive and adaptive organisations. Yet having spent millions or in some cases billions of pounds on technology, consulting services and restructures many organisations have not seen the hoped for gains. In some cases, the C-suite eventually arrive at the haunting realisation that their people and culture have become more rigid and inflexible, creating a net increase in governance, silos and protectionist behaviour. Why might this be?

The great enemy of organisational agility is FEAR. Fear is a strong word, but leaders I work with share that they are struggling with the complexity or transformation, especially around how to deliver objectives that require significant cross-organisational collaboration. 

Expectations on leaders are high, but often the organisational culture doesn't have the psychological safety to allow for vulnerability. It's usually not okay for a leader or those further down the chain of command to say "I'm struggling with is, I need help, is anyone else struggling?". Hence, to gain some confidence back and a sense of making progress, they usually go back to a comfort zone of delivering in a siloed way. Inevitably the leaders fear siloed response gives other leaders justification to also work in the 'old way', and the organisation cannot transform and certainly not at any pace that keeps them competitive.

Another fear generating factor is uncertainty. In large complex organisations, there is no road map for significant cross-organisational transformation. Leaders will need to encourage a "Test & Learn." philosophy where project teams can find a path through the complexity. This type of culture requires a high level of trust and psychological safety to foster an experimentation mentality. 

Fear drives what the Arbinger institute describes as an 'Inward Mindset' This mindset drives a behaviour that is either self-protective or self-advancing. If an Inward Mindset takes hold during complex transformation a vicious cycle begins to occur as different parts of the organisation that need to be collaborating, become increasingly protective and disjointed. The lack of alignment reduces progress and belief in the vision. The lack of progress creates fear at the highest level of leadership, which usually results in applying more pressure which further encourages a defensive siloed inward mindset across the organisation.

This all too familiar scenario sends a challenge to leadership. Leadership must create the conditions for a psychologically safe culture. Over the coming weeks I will explore various factors that build or undermine psychological safety, including how leaders shift their thinking from an 'Inward' self-protective mindset to an 'Outward' mindset where building trust, alignment and collaboration are valued and rewarded.

Alec Grimsley is the founder of Optimus, a consultancy that supports leadership to change mindset and foster a psychologically safe culture.