May 24, 2023

Misunderstanding Candor and Niceness in the Workplace

5 Ways to Promote Psychological Safety

Does your company choose a high-pressure, cut-throat approach to drive success? Many do. However, HBR (Seppala and Cameron) research suggests that cut-throat culture actually harms productivity over time, cutting into the bottom line. (Forbes Article)

Instead, consider a more positive cultural environment. Engaged employees with a passion for their purpose at work and clarified goals have increased focus and productivity. Positive culture attracts top talent that can in turn drive greater profitability.

It just makes sense. But how do you foster a positive culture at your company?

Leaders have long neglected an area of company culture that reinforces trust and decreases stress: psychological safety

Psychological Safety: The shared expectation by all members of a team that all teammates are comfortable with authenticity and won’t embarrass, reject or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.

Psychologically safety is when people feel they can speak up without fear of retribution, punishment, or humiliation. Team members are not afraid to share ideas, take risks, ask for feedback, and brainstorm out loud. These kinds of environments create fabulous opportunities for positive change.

Sadly, a Gallup poll from 2019 showed that only 3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed that their opinions count at work, and this increased in marginalized groups. Nearly half of female leaders felt like speaking up in a meeting was difficult and 1 out of 5 felt overlooked or ignored during video calls. (CCL Article)

Especially with hybrid work becoming more and more common, managers need to expand how they think about psychological safety. Research shows that a team with high psychological safety associates expertise-diversity positively with performance. In other words, psychological safety fosters a positive performance in diversity of ideas. (Harvard)

A common misconception is Psychological safety means being really really nice.

Niceness: The quality of being nice, pleasant, satisfactory, fine or subtle. 

This misses the mark. Psychological safety is not only about being nice, but about being honest and candid in communication while also showing respect.

Candid: Truthful and straightforward or frank. (Candor, the quality of being open and honest in expression, frankness.)

Being excessively nice in the absence of candor when critical feedback is needed can damage work quality and limit personal growth. In some cases, niceness without candor makes situations even worse. 

Example situation

You are a manager and you notice an employee needs to complete a more urgent project than what they are currently working on.

Option 1

Express how disappointed you are that this employee didn’t recognize they are wasting time. Demand they promptly work on the higher-priority project immediately.

(Not psychologically safe. Candor proceeds respect. The mistake is emphasized. The employee is shamed. Undermines trust.)

Option 2

Tell the employee they are doing a great job at what they are doing. Then reassign the high priority project to another employee without discussing it with the first employee.

(Not psychologically safe. Niceness proceeds candor. The employee is indirectly shamed by having the project reassigned. Undermines trust.)

Option 3

Thank the employee for their diligence on their current work and then remind them about the other project. Respectfully request they adjust their work to the higher priority.

(Psychologically safe. Candor and respect are present. The manager and employee are fostering trust. The project moves forward successfully, and most likely will be done with higher quality results.)

Simply put, psychological safety results in better work outcomes, higher trust in leadership and greater employee engagement.

How do we foster a culture of Psychological Safety?

Positive work environments do these 5 things to encourage psychological safety:

1 - Embrace consistent policies for recognition and appreciation. (Employees follow suit with increased motivation without micromanagement.) Celebrate wins, however small, to reinforce your teams’ sense of self.

2 - Encourage collaboration instead of competition. (Being a part of a team motivates employees to take on challenges. Preventing competition avoids toxicity in bullying and harassment.) Establish a norm for conflict resolution and productive conflict.

3 - Ask for help and freely give help with inclusive leadership practices.

4 - Recognize mistakes as an opportunity for growth. Encourage learning by sharing hard-won lessons through candid storytelling that expresses both disappointment and appreciation. Instead of asking what went wrong or how do we prevent this, ask: What did you learn?

5 - Promote dialogue with the intent to understand feelings and values as well as facts, where open-ended questions and active listening are expected.

Apply what you’ve learned

  • Reflect on your own interactions with team members and peers.
  • Try incorporating more niceness, paired with candor, in your interactions.
  • Ask for feedback from team members and peers.

When your employees know you care about them, they will feel empowered to take calculated risks, express ideas and concerns, speak up with questions and admit mistakes without fear of negative consequences. This is sure to lead to greater innovation and profitability.

For more information that can help your company culture, follow Mobrium on LinkedIn.


Forbes article about how company culture impacts productivity

OFFEO What is Company Culture

Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) Article

Harvard Business Review:  What Is Psychological Safety?

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