Should team psychological safety be a mandatory KPI for managers?

Psychological safety

Our most-read article on in 2022 was one entitled ‘How can leaders create psychologically safe workplaces?’, by Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at Acas, Francoise Woolley.

We followed this up with a poll, which also garnered a phenomenal response, over the last month asking:

‘Should team psychological safety be a mandatory KPI for managers?’

Psychological safety is top of the wellbeing industry’s mind

This poll has had a staggering 58,200 views, and an overwhelming majority of 75% of site visitors voted yes, 12.5% voted no and 12.5% are not sure.

Clearly this is an important issue on the wellbeing industry’s mind, so we took the question out to a few of our trusted experts, to ask them what they thought, and what next steps need to be taken.

What is psychological safety?

Firstly, a quick reminder of Woolley’s definition of psychological safety which, as she also says in her opinion piece, has been linked to high performing teams:

“When psychological safety is present, staff are not afraid to share their opinions, they can speak their mind without fear of rejection or reprisals; they can admit mistakes, share ideas, raise concerns, take interpersonal risks, and even challenge the status quo. There is an inclusive element here, in that all employees should feel able to speak up, no matter their position in the organisation or their diversity characteristic.”

Our experts said: No

All the experts we spoke to were opposed, some vehemently, to introducing mandatory KPIs for line managers around their ability to create psychologically safe teams – at this point in time.

For starters, CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese took issue with the word “mandatory” in itself, saying “I’m always very wary of this word”, adding:

“The trouble is, when you go into the mandatory and compliance space, then people can start to see it as a tick box exercise, because they’re focused on making sure they’ve adhered to some rule, as opposed to saying,  ‘OK, what’s the principle we’re trying to drive here?’”

What behaviour are you trying to drive?

It makes sense that the principle that the KPIs would be looking to drive would be an understanding of, and commitment to, the importance of creating a caring, empathetic environment; a place where team members feel their opinion is valued, listened to and heard.

This will be a significant cultural shift for many teams, and a far cry from the ‘command and control’ model of old. It’s a shift that cannot be achieved just by putting KPI measures in place. Before this, as Cheese also says, there is a whole education piece that must come first:

“You have to build it in and explain why it is important. You educate managers and then you explain that performance evaluation is not just ‘what’ is delivered but also ‘how’ it’s delivered. It’s about getting line managers to think about questions like: did you help your team and make them feel included, so you could get the best out of them?”

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Line manager training must come first

Cheese says this is a “soap box” topic for him because he feels so strongly that, for years, businesses haven’t done enough to train managers at all levels and invest in them so they can better support their teams. Not only this, chief executives must understand that the shift needs to come from the top.

“Chief executives can’t deliver a speak-up, inclusive culture just by saying they want one. First, leaders have got to live it themselves,” says Cheese.

KPIs could be one of the most unsupportive actions you could take

Arguably, introducing KPIs for line managers in the current, difficult economic and mental health climate could be one of the most unsupportive and potentially counter-productive things an organisation could do. Many line managers are already at breaking point because, in the squeeze on their time, their own wellbeing is being neglected.

KPIs here could push them, again, to put someone else’s wellbeing before their own and tip them into complete burnout, needing time off or quitting altogether.

“Before we even look at KPIs for managers, and putting on more pressure, we need to look at the existing pressures on them,” says Martin Short, Head of Health and Wellbeing at theEast of England Ambulance Service Trust.

Line managers already under huge pressure

He continues:

“There is good evidence that mid-career professionals have some of the worst mental and physical outcomes of anyone in the workforce. There’s enormous pressure, particularly in public services right now. Middle managers have to ensure that operational targets are met, staff are managed and supported and organisational efficiencies are implemented. Many managers are constantly short  of time and resources and so it is perhaps unsurprising that many middle managers feel that their health and wellbeing is adversely affected at work.”

He suggests, if senior management wants to put more structure around wellbeing, including psychological safety, implementing the Acas framework for positive mental health at work would be a good start. This outlines how employers, managers and employees should share responsibility for wellbeing in the workplace.

Look at holistic frameworks

This, he says, is a tried and tested way to “hardwire wellbeing” into the DNA of an organisation because – while he thinks it’s a “good idea” to measure psychological safety in principle – “I’m not sure going straight to that level of measurement is a good idea because the wider understanding of the workplace factors that ‘drive’ wellbeing in  organisations is still immature”.

There are currently many systemic issues that work in direct opposition to fostering wellbeing in many companies, which would make implementing KPIs for managers unfair. Short describes his most recent workplace – the Ambulance Service – as a good example.

Take the example of a paramedic who is due to clock off at midnight – but at 11.59pm a call comes in and the person is told a patient needs an urgent transfer to another hospital, miles away. Consequently, a shift that should have ended at midnight, can end up finishing many hours later.

Wellbeing can be like rearranging chairs on the Titanic

“These are the real issues winding people up and affecting their wellbeing. I sometimes feel that a lot of wellbeing activities are reactive and almost like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he says. ‘The real impact comes when staff at all levels invest in holistic actions that seek to improve organisational culture, working conditions and job quality to reduce the risk of mental ill health developing in the first place.

Given these kinds of organisational issues, to what extent can a line manager, even with exemplary people skills, cultivate a sense of psychological safety in a team member if that person feels frustrated, disillusioned and undervalued by their employer? Would KPIs around this just be setting managers up to fail?

Short echoes Cheese’s words: “We need to look at the drivers of wellbeing and treat the causes, not the symptoms.  Not keep putting a sticking plaster over a wound that needs stitches.”

Trauma complicates psychological safety

Short’s powerful analogy also points to another pertinent point he makes about employees like those in the Ambulance Service: in their jobs they experience traumatic situations and scenes as a matter of course.

Depending on their personality, the effect of this trauma can also affect the degree to which an employee will feel safe at work; a traumatised person is in a fight-or-flight survival state which, by definition, doesn’t feel safe.

The same is also true for individuals that have experienced any kind of trauma, such as childhood experiences, which could continue to affect them into adulthood, including in the workplace. Again, in these circumstances, measuring line managers on their ability to make these employees feel safe could be setting them up to fail and an supportive move.

Systemic trauma, like racism, also complicates psychological safety

Systemic trauma, around issues like race and disability, also comes into play at work when we’re considering levels of psychological safety among the workforce.

Subira Jones, founder of MPWRD Consulting, is a black woman who has MS.

She says she has never felt psychologically safe in a work environment.

Psychological safety is a fallacy

Jones goes as far as to say:

“Psychological safety is a fallacy, particularly for those who have protective characteristics because of the systemic society in which we live. We are not at a point in time where psychological safety can exist.”

Firstly, she believes, “there’s a level of privilege about bringing your true self to work”. Secondly, many people in the workforce currently are operating in “crisis mode”.

She recounts stories which illustrate why it makes it hard for those with protective characteristics to speak up without fear. When she was diagnosed with MS, her employer demanded to see medical records and wanted to extend her probation period.

KPIs are insensitive to managers

Then, when she was an inclusion adviser, a white female employee told her how inclusive the department was. Meanwhile, non-white colleagues in the department were talking to her in private about their experiences of bullying, discrimination, and lack of opportunity, sponsorship and mentorship.

Given her view that psychological safety is a fallacy, it’s no surprise that Jones thinks measuring managers on their ability to create it in teams is a terrible idea:

“It’s insensitive to line managers, who have had more put on their plate than ever before with regards to shepherding their direct reports, through a pandemic and continued global uncertainty.”

We need to focus on alarming rates of burnout

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a burnout specialist, she believes a better next step would be to invest in line managers and in preventing their burnout. Specialism or not, it’s hard to argue with her parting words:

“Let’s focus on the real issue: the alarming rates of burnout. You can’t be in a place of psychological safety if you’re in survival mode. And mindfulness and resilience are not the answer. They are ineffective interventions for people who are overwhelmed and exhausted. The most important thing right now is to invest in your people. Preventing burnout increases their capacity to create inclusive and psychologically safe workplace cultures.”

To read our ‘most read’ article of 2022, which was on psychological safety, see here.

Other related articles:

Insights from assessments of 100 hybrid teams – The role of team habits on innovation and psychological safety

Cultivating psychological safety: 16 quick tips for line managers

Do your line managers know how to cultivate psychological safety?

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Lunch & Learn Webinar: How to create psychologically safe and thriving teams in a hybrid world of work



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