Pay attention to who apologizes and when, and work to create an environment of psychological safety within your firm.
I recently joined a Facebook group to help me navigate the labyrinth of college financial and merit aid. In big, bold letters at the front of the group there was a statement that requested people search carefully through the archives before posting a question.
I had a question, searched, but wasn’t satisfied that the answers exactly fit my situation, so I thought I’d make a new post. Hesitant, I started it with a preemptive apology – a “sorry if this has been asked before” preamble to my question. Interestingly enough, a woman later posted to the same group that she searched through the archives and there were 47 posts that started with some type of apology. Apologies such as, “This was a stupid question,” “If this has been asked before,” or “If I missed this in the archives.” Always sorry. And, interestingly, 45 of those 47 apologizers were women. This poster then argued that as parents gearing to send their children to college, we need to teach our girls to stop apologizing. Lean in, ladies! Am I right?
I stopped and asked myself, “Why did I apologize?” What was I sorry about? The truth is, I was using my preemptive apology as a shield, hoping that it would prevent anyone from countering my request for help with a rude “check the archives” response. I did not feel comfortable in this group and did not want my first interaction to be negative.
I thought I’d ask other men and women, “Why do you start with an apology?” Most times, it’s a quick way to cut off rudeness, help others excuse your potential faux pas, or even help you gain connection through vulnerability.
This illustrates that the apology may not actually come from a place where we are “sorry” but something else. As I started to explore this apology issue, I realized that perhaps people are not apologizing because they have low confidence. Could people (men and women) be apologizing because they don’t feel like they have the luxury of making a mistake? The preemptive apology is a proverbial “get out of jail” card in an environment that may not tolerate mistakes.
Dr. Amy Edmonson, a Harvard Business School professor, coined the term “psychological safety,” which is the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” This concept was taken further when a researcher at Google wanted to deconstruct the make-up of high performing teams and found that the best predictor was psychological safety. Do the teams feel comfortable enough to make mistakes, bring up ideas, or fail in order to discover brilliance? Making mistakes is a key part of the “growth mindset,” coined by Stanford professor Carol Dweck. Great innovation comes from making mistakes, learning, and making more mistakes.
So how can team leads and managers create a sense of psychological safety? Is it more lectures? Cat posters? Surveys?
I’d argue a simple way is to pay attention to the apologies. Start by active listening. Who tends to apologize? When? Is it before presenting unpopular opinions? Is it during brainstorming? If you remove the idea that the apologizer lacks self-confidence, why else would they be apologizing? What are they trying to tell you? Is this a sign that perhaps your environment isn’t a space where everyone feels they can speak up without concern?
I asked my friends on LinkedIn, “Have you ever been humiliated for asking a question at work and has that affected you?” This question itself requires vulnerability. A few brave folks confided that, indeed, the humiliation had lasting effects. Several said they would often wait to ask a question (maybe outside of a meeting) and a few even said they now couch their response with some type of softening statement (“this may be a dumb question but…”). My completely unscientific survey seemed to echo what I was experiencing with the this Facebook group.
The humiliation isn’t just a single incident seared into your mind. Studies have shown that women are often punished harsher for mistakes than men, especially in roles that are traditionally male dominated (such as the C-suite, finance, and STEM fields). Similarly, a research study created a fictional political scandal around two male candidates – one Black, one white. The same scandal yielded harsher feedback for the Black candidate. Abhishek Parajuli has an interesting TED Talk that also delves into this concept.
Let’s recap: Psychological safety is the freedom to make mistakes and innovate. This is the number one indicator of high performing teams. Yet, studies also show that women and minorities are judged more harshly for mistakes. How can managers step in to help?
As you ask more questions, you may start to see where your company can have a “safety tune-up.” One simple thing team leaders or managers can do is use the privilege of their own status and ask the “dumb question” for everyone. I love it when a principal will stop a meeting and ask someone to explain an acronym – odds are several people are curious!
For team members – remember, psychological safety isn’t just the latest feel-good buzzword, it’s a key ingredient for innovation and satisfaction. After a while, the apologizer may start to look for another place to work or may stop sharing ideas to avoid being humiliated. This could mean that you will lose a key team member. Or worse, a great idea doesn’t get expressed! If you notice someone is always apologizing, simply bring it up without shaming them. Something like, “Your ideas are great Melissa, no need to apologize.” Or, “That’s not a dumb question at all Juan, I only recently learned that too.”
I am now on the lookout for these softening statements – for both others and myself. I love having a space that allows for those “crazy ideas,” which often enough are the ones that take us to another level. I delete any preemptive apologies in my correspondences. I am coaching myself to listen to these apologies in others and chiming in immediately to confirm that these are appropriate comments. Psychological safety doesn’t just happen – it needs to be intentional with everyone around.
Janki DePalma, LEED AP, CPSM, is a senior associate and director of business development at Kirksey Architecture. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.