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Psychological Safety and Accountability for Performance Management

Reading an article, “The Downside of Psychological Safety in the Workplace[1], I am reminded of the need for clear thinking when it comes to applying any philosophy, particularly in the area of psychology and performance at work.

Albert Einstein advised us to make everything “as simple as possible, but not simpler.”


It is easy to take a clever idea and ruin it by mindlessly applying it as if it was the miracle cure for every situation. Avoid seeking simple solutions to complex problems. We see it operating in the application of agile management, positivity, candid communications, as well as psychological safety. When we apply a belief or theory without considering and adapting to the situation at hand, we risk making things worse instead of better.


Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is a good idea. It focuses on freedom from shame and fear of punishment. Proponents of psychological safety believe that this safety correlates with high performance.

How bad could being psychologically safe and high performance be?


But, over simplifying can lead to a belief that any kind of discipline or negative criticism is psychologically harmful and degrades performance.

The article mentioned earlier was co-authored by Wharton’s Peter Cappelli.  It says that “Too much psychological safety at work can jeopardize performance in typical jobs, according to new research.”

The research implies that people in typical jobs, as opposed to creative or innovative jobs, need less psychological safety. Too much safety, and workers will slack off and their performance will suffer.

Are people in “typical” jobs more likely to perform well if they are in fear of being punished or shamed? Are they lazier, less motivated, more deserving of psychological abuse than creative problem solvers, designers, and other creativity workers? Are creative workers immune to the downside of too much safety?


I do not think so.


What are Typical Jobs?

First, it is necessary to define “typical” when it comes to jobs. Among the most common jobs are nurse, service representative, cashier, and server. And of course, there are project manager, software developer, and all the other jobs found in projects.

Creativity and innovation are not limited to jobs in R&D or design, where there is a need to risk being wrong to get it right.

Jobs in other fields may be best done with repetitive application of accepted tools and techniques, but there is always some need for creativity. Even AI based robots must be taught to assess the situation before applying a solution. It is a think out of the box, when necessary, attitude.

In Toyota’s quality management system, assembly line workers were expected to stop the line if they saw a problem. Fear of making a mistake would inhibit workers from taking the initiative to stop the line. Fear would stop workers from creatively adapting instead of following the rules.


Goals Drive Performance

High quality performance is critical to success. Performance is optimized by focusing on both short-term goals like getting the task done right, and long-term goals like continuously improving process and wellness.

Optimal performance can be achieved without shame or fear of making errors by working to “perfect” process and outcome using a quality management mindset.

Some errors or defects are expected. That is why Six Sigma is not Infinite Sigma. When they appear, errors are seen as learning opportunities to discover the cause and avoid it next time. Systemic causes are explored before blaming performers.

But that does not mean there is no accountability for poor performance. If a performer continually makes errors and fails to take responsibility for their performance, discipline is required. Without it, morale and team performance suffer.


Too Much of a Good Thing

So, it makes sense to include psychological safety and accountability in performance management. Psychological safety is meant to relieve any kind of worker of the unnecessary and damaging effects of negative motivation. Accountability is making sure that causes of performance deficiency are discovered and acknowledged.

Psychological safety, like any psychological-behavioral-management-leadership approach, should not be taken as standalone truth. It must be applied based on each situation, integrated into a broader program that values personal, organizational, environmental wellness and optimal performance.


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Accountability is Needed

Accountability is often misunderstood. It would be ideal if everyone understood the need for it, had a great work ethic, wasn’t afraid of criticism, and everyone’s performance, the organization was accepted and accepting.


Accountability is not Blaming

But the ideal is not the norm and even if it was there is still a need for accountability.

Accountability is not blame. It is bringing performance to the surface to identify the causes of performance quality – whether it is good or bad. It is great to be held accountable for stellar behavior and not so great to be held accountable for errors and failures.

Whenever there is accountability, some individuals will be afraid and view consequences as punishment. They may perceive management as a bunch of mean overseers ready to criticize and punish.

There is an internal psychological dynamic at work. Some fear being fired. Some have an internal judge criticizing any imperfection with an unrealistic sense of perfection. Some in leadership positions lack empathy and misread resistance to accountability as laziness. Some blame when they find someone accountable.

Fear is generated from the inside, even when there is no external threat. Recognizing the psychological dynamic enables individuals to be self- reflective and put their inner critique in its right place. Their recognition gives management and leadership the ability to be empathetic and more effective in managing performance.


How to Go Forward

When it comes to managing performance, consider both psychological safety and sustained effective performance and continuous improvement.

Safety and accountability are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go together to promote wellness, process quality, and sustainable high performance.

Psychological safety is promoted by a program of training and sustained reinforcement for managers and staff on what makes for the best way to handle accountability.

That kind of program confronts the causes of blaming and resistance to accountability, psychological dynamics around fear of criticism, methods for objective accountability, and the need for a quality management process that seeks sustained optimal performance.




George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.