Fearless Facilitator founder, Rachel Cashman, a Professor Amy Edmondson Fearless Organisation accredited practitioner for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), was invited by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to their Safety Day Conference this month, to provide the keynote speech on the importance and value of psychological safety for staff and leaders in the military industrial complex and defence sector.

The UK Government is reported to deliver some of the most complex and innovative projects in the world and within that, UK MOD major projects account for a large proportion of this work, both in number of projects and the estimated £60bn total cost.

The scale alone of this working environment creates complexity. In addition, many projects are not only multi-billion-pound, but also multi-decade endeavours, where boundaries between change projects and regular business and between permanent teams and project teams, staff and managers can blur.

Workplaces that are both complex and ambiguous can create uncertainty for individuals, teams and managers and outcomes that are unpredictable. These are known as VUCA working environments (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), an increasingly well-known acronym in management and leadership training that was first coined by the US Military’s Army War College, as part of their Developing Strategic Leadership curriculum in the early 1990s.

Creating Conditions for Success for MOD projects

The MOD’s July 2022 report “Psychological Safety in MOD Major Projects – Creating the environment for our projects to succeed” describes the work that has been done to understand the VUCA nature of their business, the extent to which psychological safety already exists across the organisation and their recognition of its importance as a key condition for creating healthy high performance.

Rachel’s MOD Safety Day keynote speech built on this learning by first reinforcing the evidence for and principles of psychological safety and then by bringing to life the journey from psychological safety to learning organisation, a place where people feel more resilient, empowered and safe to challenge established thinking, to experiment, to innovate and to learn together from failures.

What is Psychological Safety at work?

Psychological safety at work is about creating the conditions for sustainable, healthy high performance. It is about creating a culture where individuals and teams will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with concerns or mistakes, ideas and questions. Based upon 30 years of academic research, organisations that successfully implement psychological safety develop a culture where staff feel secure in the knowledge that their voice is valued and their contribution is valid. Workplaces with high levels of psychological safety have been shown to be more innovative, more capable of exposing and managing risks, more motivated to achieve their goals and shown to outperform organisations where people do not believe that their voices are welcome.

When psychological safety is high and appropriate structures and levels of accountability are in place, organisations find themselves in the “learning zone”, with better levels of communication, knowledge sharing and engagement and reduced levels of staff absenteeism and turnover.

Psychological Safety and the VUCA work environment

Psychological safety is vital to success in environments that are uncertain and interdependent, yet it is in these VUCA environments that psychological safety can be most fragile. In its own review, The MOD cites a lack of empowerment, the absence of a challenge culture, and reductions in project funding without consideration of performance or time implications all as key factors that negatively impact on psychological safety.

Furthermore, in large-scale VUCA working environments like the Government and the MOD, people and culture issues have been acknowledged as a key factor behind the failure of major programmes of transformation. In a supportive learning space, where healthy and sustainable high performance is the norm, there is a culture that recognises the challenges inherent in working in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, a culture that feels psychologically safe for individuals, teams and leaders and a culture that has a positive and direct impact on improved outcomes. In the MOD, projects found to have high psychological safety benchmarked significantly higher for wellbeing (47%) and performance (37.5%) than their counterparts who scored lower for psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a key factor in establishing high performing teams and, depending on your starting point, creating a workplace environment where psychological safety can prosper can take considerable commitment and skill. Rachel is known to be a fearless facilitator, whose expertise is helping senior leaders at large-scale VUCA workplaces, including global corporations, the NHS, central Government and the defence sector, set the tone and develop cultures & behaviours that build trust and healthy high performance across complex, integrated teams.

Contact us to find out how we can help you build more confident, resilient, united and high-performing teams