Psychological Safety a Critical Ingredient of Successful Supply Chain Teams

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In supply chain operations, when an employee makes an error, there can be major consequences — whether it be the safety of our workers on the shop floor or the quality of the product we deliver to our customers. Naturally, as supply chain leaders, we’re often laser-focused on embedding the concepts of optimization and efficiency into our organizations in order to prevent these errors from ever occurring.

Yet, what if despite our best efforts, our work environment is hindering our ability to speak about these very errors and address them effectively?

At the root of this question is the concept of psychological safety. According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term: “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”[i]

Edmondson, in her own studies, and more recently in Google’s two-year study, Project Aristotle, found that psychological safety is critical to the success of teams in any organization.[ii] It is the key ingredient underpinning a workforce that wants to learn, connect with others and innovate.

From our 2018 Supply Chain Talent and Organizational Pulse Survey, we can gain a rough understanding of the current state of psychological safety in the average supply chain organization.

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Underlying each of these statements are sentiments that support psychological safety. These are feelings that — as a supply chain employee — I have an opportunity to grow, learn and make mistakes, that management and leadership trust me, and that I have the opportunity to share ideas and take risks. Individual contributors — people who are often closest to our organizational issues — are least likely to agree with these statements.

Undoubtedly, as supply chain leaders, we have an opportunity to improve these sentiments in our own organizations and build more psychologically-safe environments for our employees to not only perform but thrive. This will require us to incorporate three main strategies into our own leadership practices:

1. Set the Stage

Within our scope as leaders, we need to ensure there is a shared understanding of the work we do and why everyone’s input matters to business performance. If I am the vice president of manufacturing for an infant formula supply chain organization, for example, I need to frequently set the stage. I need to remind my employees what is at stake, how fragile our consumers are, and how complex and error-prone our systems can be. This is not an exercise of calling out potential ineptitude. Instead, it is a public acknowledgement that our systems can compound mistakes, and unless we do everything with interpersonal awareness and communication, things can go wrong.

Practical steps you can take to set the stage:

  • Assess the complexities, interdependencies and challenges that face your organization day-to-day. You can do this through introspection or by asking questions of your employees around the challenges they perceive.
  • Openly acknowledge these roadblocks to your employees and remind them of the importance of the work that they do despite them.

2. Invite Engagement

It’s important for leaders within our organization to also invite input on operations. In some cases, we set targets, such as those related to demand forecast accuracy, that are not reasonable for the organization to hit. Where there is pressure to hit an unreachable target yet lack of psychological safety to share feedback, employees might attempt to find loopholes or cheat. In order for us to operate effectively, supply chain leadership needs to ask questions in order to encourage employees to offer suggestions or ideas. Even if we’ve set the stage effectively and we agree on the complexity of the work that we do, our employees will still have a threshold to overcome when it comes to speaking up about concerns or mistakes.

Practical steps you can take to invite engagement:

  • Ask questions, such as, “What do you see in this situation?” When asked a question directly, we are more likely to provide an answer.
  • Acknowledge your own mistakes as a leader. Model vulnerability, honesty and a growth mindset for your employees.
  • Be approachable, be open to opinions that differ from your own and encourage your employees to ask questions of their own.

3. Respond Productively

Once we have invited input, it’s our responsibility to respond appreciatively. If someone approaches us with bad news and we harshly reprimand them, we put our employee’s psychological safety at risk. Our response and questions require an open mind. However, responding appreciatively does not mean that you’re going to automatically be happy with the result that was presented to you. Instead, it means that you recognize the courage it takes for someone to come forward with bad news or to ask a question when unsure about something.

Practical steps you can take to respond productively:

  • In light of bad news, hold back the urge to react emotionally with anger or frustration. Instead, say things such as “thanks for sharing this so that we can take action together” and “what can we do to get things back on track?”
  • Ask for feedback on the delivery of your messages, particularly on any negative feedback that you provide. For example, ask “what worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?”

Caroline Chumakov,
Principal Analyst,
Gartner Supply Chain
[email protected]




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