By Claudia Leu | 6 minutes reading time

What role does psychological safety play in today’s and tomorrow's workplace? Because we wanted to know exactly, we spoke to Ina Goller. Ina is an Innovation Management Professor at the Bern University of Applied Sciences and has been working in the national and international coaching, training and consulting sector for over 20 years.

From your point of view, how has collaboration in companies changed over the last ten years?

The question is: did anything really change before Covid-19? Innovation and change always need a driving force, for example, technology. With the pandemic, dealing with technology became urgent. People had to look for new ways of working together. As a result, there was more change last year than in the previous nine years.

Did anything happen during the nine years before the pandemic?

Yes, of course. During this time, technology (e.g. Slack, Trello) matured, laying the groundwork for adapting to the unexpected changes brought on by the pandemic. However, in the last year, office and service jobs have taken a step forward. This leads to necessities and constraints but also to similar, often positive new experiences thus, innovations quickly became established.

Aside from technology, what other changes do you see in the working world?

There are formative societal changes that are triggered, for example, by the next generation entering the workforce. They have their own new rules that are different from those of the post-war generations. Instead of growing up with scarcity and significant conflicts like the post-war generations, they grow up surrounded by prosperity, security, and peace. New opportunities and technologies are everywhere. Therefore, generations are also developing differently. These changes in society are reflected by some instances, such as paternity leave, which is no longer demanded by a few, but is part of good manners.

Why couldn't earlier trends like human-centred design, agility, holacracy etc., become more widespread?

For change to last you need a mass movement. The Apple Newton, launched in 1993, was a product that had many of the features of today’s iPhone. However, you couldn’t make a phone call with it. It was a gadget for nerds, and ultimately a total flop. The iPhone, as we know it today, has more functions, looks nicer, and is an absolute hit. These improvements result from the evolution of technology and a shift in people’s needs. These small and gradual changes towards mass adoption led to the stellar success of the iPhone.

The same can be observed in today’s workforce. Individuals are taking small steps – such as with the rise of holacracy. This topic emerged as early as the 1970s, in the context of autonomous work groups. However, it wasn’t was neither socially accepted nor embraced by the general population.

The pandemic’s external pressure strongly influenced current changes. How will these changes be sustained once the pandemic is over?

The developments we are witnessing happened under great duress. As a result, many companies see themselves in some kind of "hibernation phase" and want to return to their old normal as soon as possible. In addition, the media paint a gloomy picture of the current work situation, especially with regards to home office. Hence, the critical question is: how many positive factors will individuals and organisations draw from this situation in the medium and long term? Do they want to retain their newly adopted methods, ways of working and the benefits they’ve experienced?

"Many companies see themselves in a kind of "hibernation phase" and want to return to the status quo as soon as possible".

What do you think?

When asking around, you’ll frequently hear criticism of the current situation. However, when listening more closely and asking about the advantages, two-thirds of the people will say they have positive experiences, such as less time wasted while commuting to work and experiencing less stress. My students even state that private lessons are much better.

Many companies will implement changes, especially those that can and want to see positive changes. In my opinion, most companies will root for positive changes. However, don’t be fooled by Switzerland. Numerous industries, such as supermarkets or retail stores, have no experience with home office because it simply doesn’t work, . So, when we talk about the new working world, it only applies to a small portion of the Swiss economy.

What role do you think psychological safety and related issues will play in the future?

Developments always proceed in waves. Different issues come to the fore, such as a healthy work-life balance or working environment. The tension between economic efficiency and humane working conditions leads to a tug of war between different endeavours. If the importance of human centricity is recognised, there are many initiatives to increase satisfaction. At a certain point, the balance shifts and we refocus on facts and figures. The reasoning goes, "If we become too nice, we lose economic efficiency. We would also lose focus on performance." Ultimately, what we've seen so far is that issues like psychological safety are becoming more critical.

How do you deal with people for whom psychological security is abstract?

I would ask them how they got there. You can’t say something like that unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Does the behaviour arise from a feeling that someone is getting too close to them, with the intention of manipulating them? Then it’s a matter of showing that you can create transparency through psychological security. This transparency ultimately leads to more safety. Transparency means there is less room for manipulation. That is actually a great opportunity. That would be the rational and factual answer. I have also seen cases where people have hit a wall. In the end, I believe that understanding people is what makes learning possible. And it’s with this attitude that I convinced most people.

"It's about understanding people to enable learning."

How do you embed cultural initiatives throughout the company?

One approach is to train cultural ambassadors, so-called change agents who can implement the measures and initiatives throughout the company. In addition, the ambassadors receive basic training in mindset and methods for cultural transformation; this experience is always precious. At one point, a participant said: "what we do here is what we do at the volunteer fire department". We try to build a good team, and we work on our communication. We develop a mutual understanding. We learn a lot so that, in case of an emergency, we know the processes from the top of our head . We are constantly sharpening our individual professional skills, that are important to our job and teamwork. We continue to develop professionally, but also as a team. However, when we deal with an emergency, democracy no longer applies. We know who is the best person to give us orders, and everyone knows how to carry them out. On the other hand, a leader who only shouts, and isn’t understood by anyone, will never put out a fire!"

"A leader who only shouts and is not understood by anyone will never put out a fire!"

This participant went to the heart of crisis management processes, they only work if everyone plays their part, knows what they’re doing, can do it, and does it voluntarily. If every team member sticks to their defined role, you can put out any fire. If not, there’s an increased risk of backfire.

Ina Goller

Ina is an Innovation Management Professor at the Bern University of Applied Sciences and has been working in the national and international coaching, training and consulting sector for over 20 years.

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson (1999) defines psychological safety as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking."

Psychological safety is crucial for team performance. This article shows you why this is the case and how you can increase psychological safety.

Literature

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

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