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A Masterful Lesson from the World of Golf

When golfer Scottie Scheffler woke up on the morning of the final round of the 2022 Masters golf tournament, he was overwhelmed. In only eight weeks, he had gone from winning zero golf tournaments to three and was on the verge of winning his fourth. The Masters, the most prestigious prize in the sport of golf, was within Scheffler’s reach. It was too much to contemplate. He broke down in tears. Let’s let Scottie pick up the story from here: “Meredith told me, if you win this golf tournament, if you lose by ten shots, if you never win another golf tournament again, I’m still going to love you and you are still going to be the same person.”

(Scottie and Meredith Scheffler support each other at The Masters) Was Scheffler’s wife Meredith giving him a feeling of psychological safety so that he could do his job without worrying about failure? Did the warm embrace of psychological safety help Scottie Scheffler win The Masters? I had to know, so I reached out to Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Management, Amy Edmondson, the world’s leading expert on psychological safety and its effects on workplace performance. I asked Professor Edmondson if what Meredith Scheffler did with her words was override Scottie’s impulse to let his performance define him. Did making him see that his success on the golf course had nothing to do with his success as a person who is loved and cared for help Scottie Scheffler perform at his best and win a hideous yet coveted green jacket to wear around the house? Professor Edmondson agreed with an emphatic YES. Framing the work that needs be done in a way that takes into account our natural impulse for “impression management” is a pillar of Professor Edmondson’s psychological safety framework. From a young age, we learn to protect ourselves from appearing ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative. By the time we reach adulthood, impression management is second nature to us. Framing is a way of overriding the impulse to protect ourselves at all costs that creates a sense of psychological safety. Another example of framing comes from the business world. David Kelley, chairman and founder of design firm IDEO is a master at creating an atmosphere of psychological safety. He repeats the mantra “Fail often so you succeed sooner” to IDEO staff, knowing that his employees are high achievers who likely never received a grade lower than A- in their lives. He knows that they need permission to override their tendency to shield themselves from failure and encouragement to take the risks that creativity demands.

“Psychological safety is a vital ingredient in healthy, effective, creative work.” - Adam Grant Psychological safety isn’t a nice to have. It’s a necessity to enable people to realize their full potential, and sometimes psychological safety is a matter of life or death. Both the Columbia space shuttle disaster and two crashes of the Boeing 737 Max could have been avoided if employees at all organizational levels had felt comfortable raising their concerns to higher-ups. Your job may not involve matters of life or death, but if you’re afraid of sharing bad news, asking for help or admitting that you’re wrong, you don’t feel psychologically safe, and your ability to learn, to be innovative and perform at your best will suffer. Companies that ignore psychological safety and feel they can only get candid feedback through anonymous employee surveys are destined to underperform. Psychological safety is not about being nice, avoiding conflict, taking reckless risks, or giving everyone permission to slack off. The goal of psychological safety, according to professor Edmondson, is to unleash peak performance. You deserve to feel psychologically safe, and you can give the gift of psychological safety to another person by being vulnerable and sharing your struggles, reassuring them that with you there is no need for impression management. With you, they are free to be themselves, to speak their mind and make mistakes, no matter where they are on the leaderboard.

“The goal of psychological safety is excellence in a volatile, complex, uncertain, and ambiguous world.” - Amy Edmondson

Get Fully Charged on Psychological Safety Professor Edmondson pointed out to me in her email that psychological safety is much more than framing. It’s also about actively inviting engagement by asking good questions, and it’s about responding productively to failure.

Find out more about psychological safety from these sources:

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