Cultivating Psychological Safety: How Leaders Can Encourage Openness About Mistakes


Using mistakes to learn and improve requires that we hear about them. But leaders can't just tell people to speak up. Telling them, “It's safe” doesn't make it true. Each individual decides if they feel a level of psychological safety high enough that the potential rewards of speaking up outweigh the perceived risks.

As Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, PhD, defines in her excellent book The Fearless Organization:

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with:

  • ideas
  • questions
  • concerns or
  • mistakes.”

Leaders can't generally declare, “We are a psychologically safe organization.” That's for each person to decide. The real question is:

“How safe does each person feel?”

Organizations that learn from mistakes share an important cultural attribute. Their culture, the way leaders behave, helps people decide if they feel safe speaking up about mistakes, as discussed in Chapter Five.

The connections are clear. Leaders who openly share their mistakes create an environment where others feel safe and willing to do the same. When an employee admits a mistake, they quickly learn how well their organization tolerates it or, better yet, welcomes it. Does their leader punish or thank them for speaking up? When their candor is rewarded by receiving help instead of abuse, this enables people to admit more mistakes, which leads to more learning and better performance.

Using the word “reward” might seem strange in the context of a mistake. That doesn't mean paying a cash bonus for making or finding mistakes. Leaders must reward the act of speaking up or, at the very least, avoid actions that appear to be punitive.

Words like “embrace” or “cherish” strike a better tone. We can embrace the person (figuratively, perhaps) and remind them we know the mistake was, by definition, unintentional. We can react in kind and constructive ways. Most likely, an employee involved in a mistake already feels terrible. Employees deserve kindness and empathy whether the mistake was an unintended “slip” or an intentional decision that turned out to be a mistake.

That was an excerpt from my book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation — please learn more and consider buying the book via my website, Amazon, or other retailers in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, or audiobook. Available now also through Apple Books and other eBook platforms.


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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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