As organizations increasingly move away from top-down management controls to more democratized leadership built around empowered, self-organized, highly agile teams, building a culture in which employees can contribute fully and honestly to constructive dialogue and decision-making is essential. It’s well known that high levels of psychological safety are required for that — but what is less obvious are the evidence-based interventions that leaders can implement to create such an environment.
At Sandoz, a Novartis division, we ran a robust randomized controlled trial that included more than 1,000 teams comprising over 7,000 individuals globally to empirically test what works, in collaboration with external academics and behavioral science consultants.1 While we know a lot about psychological safety and its association with desirable outcomes such as higher productivity, better performance, and increased speaking-up behaviors, there has been little causal evidence suggesting how to foster it in practice.2
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We were particularly interested in how psychological safety can give every employee a voice and increase the likelihood that potential ethical issues and misconduct will be reported and addressed appropriately. Our previous research found that psychological safety is one of two fundamental elements that affect whether employees feel comfortable bringing up those concerns; the other is an employee’s relationship with their front-line manager.3 We sought to investigate managers’ behaviors first to uncover what might be keeping people from speaking up.
The Experiment Design
Over a six-week period in late 2021, we tested the effectiveness of a minimally invasive intervention that guided managers on how to conduct one-on-one meetings with their respective team members.
Our study involved three experimental groups. The first was a control group of managers who were notified that the company was conducting a study on meeting habits but were given few other details. The second and third groups were treatment groups, where managers received emails encouraging them to hold regular one-on-one meetings with team members and to focus on psychological safety using one of two different mechanisms.
The first intervention group focused on individuation — treating employees as unique individuals. Managers were asked to encourage their employees to use their one-on-one meetings to express what was important to them and where they needed support. This treatment was based on earlier research that suggested a link between individuation and psychological safety.
1. S. Castro, F. Englmaier, and M. Guadalupe, “Fostering Psychological Safety in Teams: Evidence from an RCT,” (SSRN, posted July 3, 2022), https://papers.ssrn.co.
2. A. Ferrère, C. Rider, B. Renerte, et al., “Fostering Ethical Conduct Through Psychological Safety,” MIT Sloan Management Review 63, no. 4: 39-43; and L. Delizonna, “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety: Here’s How to Create It,” Harvard Business Review, Aug. 24, 2017, https://hbr.org.
3. Ferrère et al., “Fostering Ethical Conduct,” 39-43.
4. N.Y. Kim, “Linking Individuation and Organizational Identification: Mediation Through Psychological Safety,” The Journal of Social Psychology 160, no. 2 (2020): 216-235.
5. L. Klotz, “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less” (New York: Flatiron Books, 2021).
6. A. Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44, no. 2 (June 1999): 350-383.