There’s Power in a Psychologically Safe Workplace

By Marty Parker

Psychological safety in the workplace comes down to this: do people trust their colleagues in a way that allows them to participate, and to feel comfortable expressing their own thoughts and ideas? When this type of trust exists, people feel safe to challenge, to question and to innovate. With trust and safety in place, anything is possible

I recently had the chance to talk with Jane Chung, president at AstraZeneca Canada, about that organization’s people-focused culture. One of the key things that came out of our conversation was the importance of, and power in building a psychologically safe – or high trust – workplace.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
As president, Jane, how do you see your own role in terms of affecting, leading, and enhancing the culture at AstraZeneca Canada?

Jane Chung:
Let me be clear. I think culture and success in a company is not built on the backs of one person. You need a team. You need great people. You need a great environment. I think as president, it’s important to set a very positive and healthy tone, and the value of culture [in] supporting a very open, nurturing environment, a safe environment for people to contribute and say what’s on their minds and share what’s important to them.

And then I also think what helps in motivating people is sharing context and the “why” behind our decisions. Many times we don’t spend enough time communicating the context or the “why.” We spend more time on the “what.”

And then finally, I would say, I think it’s incumbent on everybody to contribute to that culture. Culture is not something that stands alone and is stagnant. It actually grows with the evolution and growth of the team. And everybody has an opportunity to contribute to what that looks like, how that feels, and how we shape our future together.

Marty Parker:
It’s always the challenge though in a high-performance culture like AstraZeneca Canada to find the balance between being people focused and high performance. How do you do that?

Jane Chung:
It’s a great question. I try to keep things simple. In our world, in my job, it’s about people and it’s about the business. The business part is actually quite a lot easier. What it takes to make strategic decisions and numbers and all of the financials and sort of your priorities, that’s something a bit easier for me. It’s the people piece that takes more time and more investment.

Everybody is motivated by something different. And how do you tap into that to really get the best out of your people and your team? That’s where you want to make sure that the people investment, the people strategy is just as important, if not more so, in delivering great success for a company. And as I mentioned earlier, if you have this belief that people are the ones that drive your business, you take care of your people and then the rest will follow. I think that’s why it’s so important that we focus on that.

Marty Parker:
Now, when we spoke a number of months ago around the Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Award process, you described AstraZeneca Canada kind of culture as being a speak up culture – one where people feel comfortable asking questions, raising concerns, and have that what we call psychological safety, if you will. Why is this so important and how do you develop and maintain a culture where people feel safe to speak up?

Jane Chung:
Why it’s important is because, again, a company’s success is not built on one person having all the answers, right? …There’s no stronger and more compelling way to value your people other than by listening to them. We hire very talented people with expertise in their area. Why would we hire them and then not listen to them? We need to tap into how they’re thinking, what they’re thinking, so that we can all be better together.

And it goes to not only making the better decisions around your business decisions, but it also goes to motivating and making people feel like they have an opportunity to speak up and have skin in the game and shape our future together, right? It has a dual effect in that way.

I think how we do it is we start off by really listening, and we make sure that we try to listen for understanding. Not to just hear people, but understand why and what they may be saying and appreciate sort of where they’re coming from that I think how we do it in this new environment with the advances of virtual connections, we try to… I think it has made it easier to some extent, right, to be able to connect with many more people and probably in more intimate environments where people can have this face-to-face – although it’s not live, it’s virtual, but it helps you connect with folks. I think it’s really important to have a good understanding and good insights at all levels of the organization.

For me, culture is a bit of a measure of having a voice at every level of the organization. Sometimes when you ask people, how do you define culture, it’s very hard to do. But to me, it’s very simple. If you have an ear and you give a voice to people at every level of the organization, it can be very powerful, and people feel like they have skin in the game to be able to help shape and do more. And what they do is so meaningful to the company’s success that it is a bit of a very self-cycle sort of motivating thing for people.

Marty Parker:
It requires more asking and even more listening.

Jane Chung:
We’ve actually started doing some round tables where we don’t have an agenda. It’s an open agenda. It kind of made people uncomfortable in the beginning, but it’s actually very effective to say, “Okay. We’re going to turn these events on [their] head, and we’re going to listen to our team. What’s on your mind? What are the things that we could be doing better? What are the pain points that you’re seeing in your life, whether it comes to life or work? What are the needs and how can we continue to improve and challenge the status quo and improve what we do every day?”

Marty Parker:
Well, sometimes no agenda can lead to some very interesting insights, can it?

Jane Chung:
[They’ve] actually become some of the more popular events… The attendance to those types of events in the beginning, people were a little bit scared in terms of fearful of what they may say, is there any retribution towards radical honesty, if you will. But if you really have an open agenda and you listen for understanding and can model that and demonstrate that to others, people feel a lot safer to be able to engage that way.

I think it’s critically important for us to continue to do that, especially since our futures or our current state of the world is so different. We’re going to have to lean on every area of our business to get us through this.

Marty Parker:
How does speak up culture tie into your approach to diversity and inclusion?

Jane Chung:
I think it ties very complimentary. It gives us a path towards embracing inclusion and diversity and a path to doing that effectively. To me, diversity is, of course, having a different background and culture and appreciating and valuing all that, but it’s also about different thinking and different perspectives. And speak up allows you to share those different perspectives more freely and also in a safe environment where people feel that they can share their unique experiences, their unique insights and learnings.

That’s when the magic happens. How do we tap into that more so, because I think the new normal will require us to do different things, and what’s made us successful in the past is not going to be enough for us to be successful in the future. We have to tap into the diversity of our experiences, our learnings, and our people and really be more disruptive in how we engage and how we deliver success in the future.