Safe At Any Speed: Creating Psychological Safety Is The Key To Innovation

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    Today’s Friend of the Firm perspective comes from Dr. Allessandria Polizzi, Founder and CEO of Verdant Consulting.  

    Back in the 1960s, Ralph Nadar wrote the book “Unsafe at Any Speed” about the Chevy Corvair. He uncovered dangerous flaws in the design of the vehicle, including a design flaw that caused the axle to “tuck under” it’s own tires, and his book is attributed to many of the safety laws enacted afterwards. 

    As we contemplate our current moment, and what some people are calling the 2nd pandemic of mental health crises, it feels as if we could be heading down a similar road, albeit metaphorically. With the latest research showing 72% of employers citing burnout as a major issue at their workplace (Hartford 2021), we are in a fragile and precarious situation. As nonprofits work to re engage volunteers and their staff, they are challenged by people on the edge of burnout, stressed, stretched, and concerned about what’s to come.

    So what is a leader to do?

    In 2015, Google and Re:Work produced results from their 2-year study of what makes teams successful. They identified Psychological Safety as the most critical differentiator in high performing teams. Psychological safety creates an atmosphere where employees feel they can:

    • Take risks without fear of ridicule
    • Be their true selves
    • Make mistakes with a willingness to learn
    • Ask questions 
    • Raise problems
    • Disagree with each other and those in power

    At our current moment in history, this essential element to organizational effectiveness is even more poignant. Beyond the research from Google, many academic studies have shown a direct correlation between fostering psychological safety and burnout prevention and improved innovation, worker commitment, and team effectiveness. 

    In fact, psychological safety is so critical to future organizational success that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has produced the first standards and guidelines for managing psychosocial risks in the workplace in June of this year. The ISO 45003, which connects to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, addresses the many areas that can impact a worker’s psychological health, including ineffective communication, excessive pressure, poor leadership and organizational culture. 

    The approach here is that adults will avert any behavior they feel will make them look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative. As Amy Edmondson says in her book, The Fearless Organization, “speaking up is only the first step. The true test is how leaders respond when people actually do speak up.” The passion of volunteers and teams to your mission is often the reason they start investing their time; keeping them engaged and motivated, however, is a different challenge. Ensuring psychological safety is essential to doing so, especially given conflicting demands for time and mental space.

    6 Questions To Determine If Your Organization Is Creating A Psychologically Safe Space

    • Do people on the team sometimes reject people for being different? This can be especially challenging when teams have bonded together or are threatened easily by new ideas.
    • Are risks questioned, avoided, or analyzed with such detail that action cannot be taken?
      “Analysis paralysis” can hinder the team from trying new ideas or pushing themselves to improve.
    • Does the team “get along to go along,” ignoring or side-stepping conflict?
      Lack of conflict is not necessarily and indicator of a healthy team. In fact, it is the ability to have healthy debate that will make the team stronger in the end.
    • When mistakes are made, is it held against people?
      Instead of fearing mistakes, the concept of “fail fast” can create a sense of inquiry and innovation.
    • If people ask questions, is there concern that they don’t know what they are doing or aren’t able to do their jobs?
      Curiosity is an advantage on any team because it means people are engaged, interested, and able to bounce back from adversity.
    • When people raise issues or concerns, does it come across as questioning leadership, as unsupportive or as otherwise threatening to others?
      Empowering teams, volunteers and clients to share their experience, both good and bad, helps your organization identify and overcome barriers.

    Finding ways for teams to feel safe, and maintaining this dynamic, can help your organization tackle the road ahead, as they work to overcome challenges, whatever they may be. 

    Dr. Allessandria Polizzi, CEO of Verdant Consulting, 2020 Top 100 HR Executive, and Fundraising Director for Phinney’s Friends, offers training and human capital solutions with an emphasis on building resiliency and creating an inclusive and thriving organization. You can reach her at or visit her website,, to learn more.

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