Democracy, Free Speech Needs Us To Double Down On 'Psychological Safety' For What Lies Ahead

01/11/2017 07:24 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

If the Donald Trump White House transition team’s actions are any indication, the new administration wants us to check our voices at the door. Fortunately, the Energy Department has refused to comply with a request to know which employees have worked on climate change and professional memberships of lab workers. The atmosphere of intimidation and suppression being created is ominous, and must be addressed before it permeates the culture at large.

A concept developed by Amy Edmondson from Harvard, “psychological safety” refers to the shared belief it is safe to take risks and speak out without fear of reprisal in a particular setting. Psychological safety has been found to be critical to success in a variety of environments, including industry, health care and universities. Conditions of psychological safety in an organization improve innovation, enhance learning and teamwork, and produce better outcomes.

Trump’s cabinet picks underscore what’s at stake: Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is being sought to helm the energy department, the agency he previously vowed to dismantle. Andrew Puzder, a restaurant group CEO tapped for Labor Secretary has declared opposition to raising the minimum wage, and Scott Pruitt has been tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency although he’s a climate change skeptic. If successful, as anticipated, the appointment of these individuals to leadership roles presents many challenges to thousands of employees working on basic energy science, national security, workforce development, and global health concerns. Prominent among these challenges is the ability to work in an environment that provides psychological safety to its employees.

Google recently reported its discovery of psychological safety as the key to high-functioning successful teams in its organization. In these teams, members share mutual respect for diverse views and trust that they will not be embarrassed or punished for expressing different opinions. Members are encouraged to take risks and to fail without blame, fostering an environment that supports innovation and the “failing fast” mantra of the tech industry.

Our team at Yale has been studying how hospitals take care of patients with heart attacks. We found that what distinguishes the top performing hospitals in survival rates is not necessarily health care technology and practices, but rather the context in which those practices are implemented, the relational ways of working together or in other words, the organizational culture. In the hospitals with lowest mortality rates, the culture is one in which staff feel empowered to raise concerns, to challenge those in powerful positions, in order to improve outcomes.

And what about psychological safety in classrooms?

At Yale University where I teach research ethics and grand strategy in global health, our students who voted for Donald J. Trump (about 5 percent) have expressed hesitancy to voice their excitement about the election, fearing backlash. Here was a bonafide collision of academia and reality. I study and teach about psychological safety, but could I model it in our classroom? After the Nov. 8 election, I opened the floor with a specific reference to creating a safe space for diverse views. Students expressed a wide range of feelings, from helplessness, fear and anger to hopefulness that the election served as a galvanizing force for disengaged or underrepresented members of the Democratic Party. I had expected to devote about 5 minutes to a discussion that took 45 and would have continued if I let it. Students clearly needed this time and space.

It takes courage to express one’s opinions in an environment that does not feel safe, and it is not easy to share openly, to challenge, and make oneself vulnerable in the process of giving voice to critical issues and concerns. No doubt in this process, some will be met with hostility, or a blank stare or silence. And creating psychologically safe space is easier in theory than in reality.

Yet given the unfolding landscape of cabinet leaders in the Trump administration, it is more important than ever to ensure that the vision, mission and integrity of these agencies is protected, even in environments that feel the least safe. A critical job of people in leadership roles is to create cultures in which psychological safety is present and where free expression is valued. There are many kinds of leadership roles – managers and supervisors, professors, pastors, heads of civic associations – who have the power to create environments that are conducive to open exchange of diverse perspectives.

Now more than ever we need to be encouraging conversations that cross boundaries of all types. A great number of people feel particularly vulnerable and understandably anxious as the new administration begins to deliver on its campaign promises. Psychological safety is an ethos that knows no boundary or party line, yet enabling meaningful discourse is a two-way street that requires commitment, vigilance and a shared belief in freedom of expression as the root of our democracy. Leaders of all types must recognize the imperative for creating environments and opportunities for candid, honest exchange of ideas without fear of backlash or recrimination.

Leslie Curry, PhD, MPH, a Public Voices Fellow, is senior research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health, Core Faculty at the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute and Lecturer at Yale College.

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