Some may claim that cultures of fear are limited to when bad bosses respond to criticism with sanctions. At the same time, the author of this article argues that evidence suggests that high levels of psychological safety in workplace teams undermine the conditions that such cultures need to develop. Stock photo: Shutterstock

Cultures of fear can be strangled at birth

In the wake of the shocking revelation from a major Oslo hospital that fear among employees is making corporate whistleblowing difficult, some in the IT sector are promoting the opposite. When something goes wrong, they learn from their mistakes together.

Earlier this spring, a number of the Norwegian broadcaster NRK’s platforms were reporting some unwelcome news from behind the scenes at the gastro-surgical department at Ullevål Hospital in Oslo. In a recent report published by a public investigation commission, doctors told of a culture of fear that makes it difficult for them to speak out about serious errors made in the workplace. 

The content of this report stands in stark contrast to the results of in-depth studies carried out by working environment researchers in an entirely different sector. 

For an entire year, we at SINTEF have been following three teams of IT developers employed at the banking organisation Sparebank1 Utvikling. All three teams were looking to promote psychological safety in their workplaces, which is exactly what is needed to prevent cultures of fear from emerging.

High psychological safety boosts performance

Psychological safety in the workplace addresses situations in which you as an employee may wish to present a new idea, ask a difficult question or report an error or mistake.

But perhaps you put things off because you’re afraid of a negative reaction from your boss or colleagues? The reason you don’t come forward in such situations is because you have a low level of psychological safety.

The results of an increasing number of studies being conducted in the IT sector indicate that teams with high levels of psychological safety deliver the best performance. This is because they see no barriers to sharing information that others may find uncomfortable to deal with.

Post-mortem meetings to discuss mistakes

The study that we conducted at Sparebank 1 Utvikling has shown that it is perfectly possible to create psychologically healthy arenas for sharing difficult issues. It revealed three main findings that, taken together, demonstrate that such arenas offer enormous potential for learning among teams that carry out other complex forms of knowledge work, including those working in the health services.

  • One of the success factors for all three teams was the use of so-called ‘post-mortem’ meetings, held following recognised mistakes or errors with the aim of promoting shared learning and as an alternative to assigning blame. In such meetings, it is not permitted to single out individuals who may perhaps have been responsible for an error. The aim is to promote shared learning – and add a little fun into the mix. All those who we interviewed reported positive experiences of these meetings. One of them said: “The post-mortems are a really positive thing. They help us to practice how to avoid putting the blame on individual team members”. 
  • Perhaps as a result of the post-mortem meetings, all of our interview objects from the three teams felt comfortable in admitting that they had made a mistake. This in itself is a clear indication of high levels of psychological safety. 
  • Moreover, the teams empowered their members to practice giving and receiving feedback, thus enabling individuals to feel more prepared for real learning discussions within their respective teams. 

Undermining the conditions that promote cultures of fear

Some may claim that cultures of fear are limited to when bad bosses respond to criticism with sanctions.  At the same time, our evidence suggests that high levels of psychological safety in workplace teams undermine the conditions that such cultures need to develop.   

It is in our nature that we become anxious about appearing to be disruptive, negative or incompetent in the workplace. For this reason, we may shy away from sharing our ideas. We may avoid making criticisms and fail to acknowledge our mistakes.

Current research shows that such behaviours cause teams to be less effective, with individual members working more in isolation. This in turn increases the risk that errors will be made without the team being aware of them. Such results apply in particular to teams that are working on complex and challenging tasks, and especially if they are reliant on innovative thinking that entails trial-and-error approaches.

A glimpse of life in the health service

Much of the research into psychological safety has taken place in the IT sector. But others have been examining such issues in health service teams.

Amy Edmondson is currently a professor at the Harvard Business School, and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of psychological safety. As far back as in 2004, she discovered that health service teams functioning under the influence of a culture of fear tend to report the fewest mistakes. Moreover, teams that were recognised as the most skilled tended to report a larger number of errors.

It was considered likely that the real number of errors made by the teams in her survey was approximately the same. The big difference between what were considered to be ‘effective’ and ‘weak’ teams was how they were learning from their mistakes. The most important conclusion here is to promote psychological safety in workplaces where errors can result in major consequences.

Google employees show the way

The interest in psychological safety in team contexts really took off in 2014, when Google made public a two-year study  that had been conducted among its employees. It showed that psychological safety was crucial to a team’s ability to be creative, succeed in its tasks and achieve job satisfaction.  

These results were later confirmed following a major American survey of 22,000 workers, which demonstrated that a team’s level of psychological security greatly influenced its performance.

Our studies at SINTEF have since confirmed the same phenomenon as part of an investigation of 43 Norwegian software developer teams.

No overnight solution

Psychological safety cannot be generated overnight. It has to be cultivated gradually by focused practice.

Regardless of the sector we are working in, initiatives such as post-mortem meetings, similar to those used at Sparebank 1 Utvikling, may offer an effective starting point for getting teams into the habit of talking about the mistakes and errors they make. Positive feedback from colleagues and managers has to be prerequisite if we are to cultivate a culture in which we admit to our  mistakes. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes. What is wrong is not learning from them.

This article was first published in the newspaper Dagsavisen on 20 May 2023 and is reproduced here with the permission of the paper.