Psychological Safety: The Power of the Positive Climate

“The Power of the Positive Climate” – This is the first entry in a series of blogs about the leadership concept of psychological safety.

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.” — Helen Keller

There’s a considerable body of evidence that positivity is contagious — which makes me wonder why so many workplace cultures tend to be the opposite!  Here’s an excerpt from a thoughtful article on the subject in The Harvard Business Review a few years ago:

Too many companies bet on having a cut-throat, high-pressure, take-no-prisoners culture to drive their financial success.

But a large and growing body of research on positive organizational psychology demonstrates that not only is a cut-throat environment harmful to productivity over time, but that a positive environment will lead to dramatic benefits for employers, employees, and the bottom line.

Although there’s an assumption that stress and pressure push employees to perform more, better, and faster, what cutthroat organizations fail to recognize is the hidden costs incurred…

In a large-scale study of over 3,000 employees conducted by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institute, results showed a strong link between leadership behavior and heart disease in employees. Stress-producing bosses are literally bad for the heart.[1]

If it were just a matter of the cost of health and safety, that would still be a powerful argument for positivity, but there are other costs associated with a climate of negativity, too:

Second is the cost of disengagement…

…Engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.

And disengagement is costly. In studies by the Queens [Smith] School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, disengaged workers… [had] 60% more errors and defects…

Lack of loyalty is a third cost. Research shows that workplace stress leads to an increase of almost 50% in voluntary turnover… And the turnover costs associated with recruiting, training, lowered productivity, lost expertise, and so forth, are significant.”[2]

Clearly, there are significant benefits in operating differently than the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality.  The key here is to make a genuine commitment to being positive in how we lead and influence others. The Power of the Positive Climate

Here are three sets of tools found to be effective in creating and sustaining a climate of positivity – a key ingredient of psychological safety:

  1. Smile and Practice Eye Contact. People tend to mirror the behavior of those around them.  Sounds simple, but it works.
  2. Model Curiosity. Ask “power questions” which will yield useful information and indicate you genuinely care about your teammates.  One of my favorites is “What’s on Your Mind?”  Another is “What’s the biggest challenge you are facing this week — and why?
  3. Think Learning, Not Blame. If we are always looking for who screwed up and who to blame, we foster negativity.  Try this approach instead: “So, what did we learn here?

Putting a priority on positivity is something that can be done regardless of the size of your team, or whether they are in-person or remote.

And… the power of positivity starts at the top. Hold yourself and other top leaders in your team accountable — be role models. The senior leadership must set the standard for positivity, every day.  Now is the time to start.

Enjoy the journey!

[1]Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive” by Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron in the Harvard Business Review December 01, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

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