On the 26th of April 1986, there was an initial explosion and fire within Reactor Number 4 of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl (present day Ukraine). This fire was followed up by another graphite fire which produced gases and aerosols containing huge quantities of radioactive material. Large swathes of present day Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus (which were under the Soviet Union at that time) were contaminated by this material. The disaster directly killed 31 people and estimated to have indirectly killed over 4000. The cause of the explosion was cited as a flawed reactor design and poorly trained personnel. Importantly, it is suggested that the culture within the plant at the time did not encourage such personnel to raise concerns about mistakes. Workers therefore kept silent in the face of obvious dangers – they were afraid to speak up. In essence, there was a lack of psychological safety amongst the staff of the Chernobyl plant. Prof. Amy Edmondson has spent her career researching psychological safety, suggesting that it relates to a working climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. In particular she states, ‘when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.’ Psychological safety ensures a ‘dangerous silence’ does not creep into working practices that may jeapordise worker health.
Edmondson suggests though the idea of psychological safety goes beyond preventing accidents or negligence. It is also important for people’s wellbeing in terms of expressing themselves without judgement. And perhaps even more importantly for sport, psychological safety is shown to contribute to improved performance outcomes. Edmondson talks about in her original PhD study, which focused on errors in medical teams, that she expected to see the best performing teams have the lowest rate of errors. On analysing her results though she found the most efficient and productive teams had the highest rate of errors. She talks of how she was baffled by this at first but then had a ‘eureka moment’ – she realised that these productive teams were reporting their mistakes and errors more. In summary, those in the better teams talked openly about risk and errors and tried to find new ways to prevent them. These particular medical teams felt safe to talk about where they failed and look for the wider group to offer wisdom or ideas for the future. They held no fear of reprisals, dismissals or thought less of for speaking up. Without psychological safety then, people do not talk or collaboratively rectify their errors or mistakes – and without such collaboration, learning is stifled. Within sport, if we view ‘high performance’ as learning at a faster rate than our opponents, so as to innovate and develop a competitive advantage, such a threat to learning needs to be treated seriously.
Of course, many sporting or general business organisations will state that they want a psychologically safe workplace. The more important reflection is what does such safety look like in use, within the actual working conditions of the sport. Edmundson suggests we need to work towards becoming ‘fearless’ in our settings. She continues by stating that leadership is crucial here and recommends a ‘tool kit’ approach that may help. One important aspect of the toolkit she draws attention to is how leaders ‘frame the work’ – essentially this is setting expectations around failure, dealing with uncertainty and interdependence in order to empower the ‘voice’ of others within the setting. The computer scientist and entrepreneur Eric ‘Astro’ Teller, who directs Google’s ‘X’ laboratories, remarked, ‘the only way to get people to work on big, risky things…is if you make that the path of least resistance for them and make it safe to fail.’ It is not just then that we should look to discuss failure, but acknowledge that it is a natural part of innovating in any workplace. Sport, of course, intuitively understands that failure is built into the growth of talent. However, for those in leadership positions, we need to question how safe do we make it for failing to occur not just in athletes but staff as well. Competition is not built on working harder but smarter working, developing new insights that provides the edge required. If people are undermined or judged unnecessarily, the psychological safety essential for such learning fails to germinate.
Edmondson, A. C. (2019). The fearless organization: creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth. New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons.
Ginzburg, H. M. (1993). “The Psychological Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident: Findings from the International Atomic Energy Agency Study.” Public Health Reports 108(2): 184-192.