Accountability vs Psychological Safety

In our discussions of accountability, I recently touched on entitlement and its impact on the workplace, but when managing someone else’s entitlement by holding them accountable, we need to be wary not to act entitled ourselves. An example of this is the response “Because I said so”, under no circumstance does that phrase ever improve a conversation. The reason for that is that entitlement destroys any sense of psychological safety.

This brings us to today’s topic: can Accountability and Psychological Safety live in harmony? Most people would say that they cannot. But hear me out.

Psychological safety is about team members feeling safe enough to speak their minds; bring up ideas, ask questions, discuss issues, admit to mistakes, etc, without fear of negative consequences. Cultivating psychological safety creates an environment where people readily collaborate, communicate, and hold one another accountable.

Accountability, on the other hand, as we’ve discussed over the last weeks, is about team members taking ownership of their work and being willing to be held responsible for it.

Accountability and psychological safety clash when the consequences for a lack of accountability come across more as punishments than anything else.

In a TED talk about psychological safety, Amy Edmondson discusses how team members may avoid broaching potential problems for fear of negative repercussions – the example she gives is of a nurse noticing that a patient needs a lower dosage of medication, but in an attempt to avoid seeming incompetent/incapable/negative/lazy, the nurse doesn’t notify the doctor of the issue. Reason being, it doesn’t feel safe for her to do so, as the doctor has mentioned before that she should not question his decisions.

Edmondson notes that while most people see accountability and psychological/organisational safety as being mutually exclusive, the two concepts can leverage off each other to varying degrees to improve productivity. Below is an explanation of the intersections between the two concepts, rating the accountability and organisational performance, alongside a description of the effect that has on the workforce.

  • Low accountability and low organisational safety:
    This leads to a workplace where nothing gets done and there are no consequences; in the long run, this harms the business’ overall sustainability.
  • High organisational safety but low accountability:
    Makes for a workplace where no one gets anything done and problems are ignored in favour of keeping the peace.
  • High accountability but low organisational safety:
    Creates a workspace where people don’t feel safe bringing up problems, instead keeping quiet – much like our nurse.
  • High accountability and high organisational safety:
    The ideal workplace, where high accountability is enabled by organisational safety.

Fortunately it is possible to foster this ‘ideal workplace’, below are five points to focus on.

  1. Encourage open communication:
    Teams that promote an atmosphere of transparency and open communication are teams where people feel comfortable asking questions, making suggestions, asking for clarification, and pointing out or raising issues. This creates not only a sense of psychological safety, but has other benefits too – productivity increases through collaboration, and managers can more easily spot and handle problems.
  2. Engage in active listening:
    Active listening is about giving your full attention to another person, seeking to understand their perspective, and then showing empathy – acknowledging another person and their situation and being there for them. When team members feel that they are heard, and that their problems are being acknowledged, this breeds psychological safety, as people will more readily speak up when they know someone will listen.
    Active listening also promotes accountability, as it enables team members to take in feedback, learn from it, and make the necessary adjustments.
  3. Give non-judgemental feedback:
    When giving feedback, labelling someone as lazy/incompetent/incapable/etc is judgemental, labels like these put a person down and they don’t address the issue. Non-judgemental feedback is, by nature, constructive; it is about growth and improvement, not blame – pointing out the actual problems and giving the team member in question the information they need to improve.
  4. Open the floor to diversity and inclusivity:
    Discussions around diversity and inclusivity usually focus on demographic groups such as gender, ethnicity, etc, but it should also include diversity of strengths and diversity of thoughts. Everyone has their own background, strengths and perspectives, each person is capable of bringing something new to the table – but only if we let them.
    When team members feel valued for who they are, and what they bring to the table, this encourages them to take ownership of their work, as they will feel more comfortable bringing up ideas and making decisions.
  5. Exhibit supportive leadership:
    Supportive leaders display empathy, vulnerability, and support, they create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up. A little bit of vulnerability, sharing a few of your own problems once in a while, goes a long way in making employees feel like they can be vulnerable too – they can make mistakes and air their grievances, because they know you also make mistakes and have grievances. This fosters a culture of trust, which encourages open communication and enhances collaboration.
  6. Learn from mistakes:
    Treat failure as an opportunity to grow, rather than a chance to lay blame. Failures are often treated as if they were the end of the world, but most will be small mistakes, hiccups which can be dealt with quickly, easily, and without unnecessary stress. When team members see failures and mistakes as learning opportunities, they are more likely to take ownership, share their failures, and work towards solutions, and growth, without fear of retribution.

With all the above points, we find that teams will often increase their accountability on their own simply because they have the psychological safety to do so.