The choice between Psychological Safety and Motivation / Accountability is destroying your team.

Psychological Safety at work is gaining momentum faster than ever.

And it’s changing lives. Why?

I once had the opportunity to work with two teams that were each effective in their own way, despite having very different styles of leadership and their own unique micro cultures. These teams ran the morning shift and the afternoon shift in a busy airport’s command post.

One of the teams had completed some high-performance emotional intelligence and psychological safety training (let’s call them the morning shift), while the other group (the afternoon shift) was delaying that training until later in the year. This gave my team an amazing opportunity to observe and gather some data on the difference between the groups.

Seeing the morning shift embrace the concepts of emotional intelligence and psychological safety at work was incredible to say the least. The team leader was so captivated by these “new” concepts and instantly encouraged them to be used wholeheartedly. All of a sudden it was more than okay to ask questions, deliver new ideas, talk about how you were feeling and be honest if a mistake had been made. Everyone on the morning shift loved coming to work.

The afternoon team continued doing things the way they had always done them. They were a results driven team – achieve all of your tasks no matter what the cost. They asked very few questions, there was no innovation, don’t even bother talking about how you feel, and everyone would quietly hide every mistake out of fear of getting in trouble.

Within a few weeks, a noticeable change had occurred. The morning crew’s popularity rose around the airport – they were getting 3 times more phone calls, the office was busy with workers coming & going and the radio chatter was professional yet busy all shifts. By all accounts, it was a fun place to work.

When the afternoon crew started, the phone calls reduced to the bare minimum, no one visited and the lack of radio chatter made it seem like there was some sort of comms black out.

To any observer, this cultural difference between shifts must have been because of the personalities of the team leaders, right? It’s easy to make that assumption.

As it turned out, the efficiency of the airport hadn’t really changed. Nothing was really improving from an output and safety point of view. In fact, the same routine mistakes were still occurring by both shifts in the command post and nobody really knew why. Most assumed that the morning shift in particular was a well oiled machine that had everything under control. That’s the way it seemed from the outside at least.


Does a particular style work best? 

When we looked into the different styles of leadership and team behaviours, with the morning shift we saw an abundance of psychological safety and EQ. They were a fantastically tight knit group that communicated and treated each other with compassion and empathy. When errors occurred they were brushed aside and considered the result of running a complex system and replaced with care and compassion so that everybody felt good about themselves when they went home at the end of shift.

The afternoon shift on the other hand was highly motivated and if an error occurred, the consequences were normally quite serious.  “How could this happen again? Haven’t you learnt from your mistakes?”, were the first words from the team leader. At the end of shift, the team couldn’t wait to get out of there and get home to a safe environment.

psychological safety

This story of two teams raises some very important questions.

Is it psychological safety in the workplace that we need to function & work at our best?

Or is it motivation and accountability that is most important?

While each team had an abundance of one particular style, none of them had a healthy mixture of both. When given the opportunity, any high reliability team wants the opportunity to learn. We all want to learn from our mistakes of course, in order to reduce their frequency and severity. But is being a highly motivated team enough? Is it fair and justifiable if you hold your team accountable for every mistake?


Moving up into the Learning Zone

When asked how learning was occurring following a mistake or an incident, the morning shift talked about showing empathy and not being too hard on themselves. They didn’t want to upset each other, so they didn’t want to have those hard conversations.  As a result, they were cruising along and placed themselves right within the “Comfort Zone”. Their high level of psychological safety and EQ ensured they were a friendly, popular team to work with, but they showed very little motivation to improve and had next to no accountability when something went wrong.

The afternoon shift on the other hand had built the worst house on the best street right in the Anxiety Zone. They had plenty of motivation and there was certainly plenty of accountability when something went wrong. This made their work day an extremely anxious one where fear, lying, hiding and faking were rampant. There was fear that they would make a mistake and get in trouble; they were lying about making errors and then having to figure out more inventive ways to hide them; and they were forced to fake a professional personality until they finally got to leave at the end of the day so they could go back to being themselves.

So what happens if you do both?

Firstly, it can certainly be highlighted that if you have low psychological safety, motivation or accountability, you’re living in the apathy zone which unfortunately won’t allow you to get too far at all. This can be one of the riskiest teams to work in which results in employees not working too hard. Either because they are afraid of doing the wrong thing or they are too exhausted and burnt out. This is the result of authoritative, emotionally volatile leaders that are closed off to their direct reports who unwittingly create a psychologically unsafe team culture.

motivation and accountability

When the morning crew was challenged about how to have both high psychological safety as well as ensure everyone has the correct motivations and is held accountable for all of their actions, they were able to discuss it very openly and honestly. They had already set up a strong system of trust so they understood that it was necessary to be able to move up into the Learning Zone. They developed a better reporting system for incidents and embraced a Learning Teams concept that meant they openly discussed the incident outcome and learned as much as they could.

For the afternoon crew to move up into the Learning Zone they needed to do some serious soul searching. They were working in fear and the team leader was quite comfortable with this approach. They needed a healthy dose of human performance training coupled with a shared drive to shatter the harmful behaviour that was bringing mental pain into the team.

Achieving psychological safety at work or in an organisation is not easy. It requires leaders who are able to create a culture where people feel like they are heard, seen, and valued; where they can speak up without feeling like they will be judged or punished for doing so; where people can make mistakes without fear that it will ruin their careers.

Here is where one of the more influential and surprising results came from. Well known for a strong personality, the afternoon team leader volunteered for some mentoring and reflection sessions, and in doing so realised the effect that their personal leadership style was having on the team. Making a decision to listen to the rest of the team’s thoughts on how to improve both individually and as a group, the team leader took it all onboard, then worked hard with the team until they did what many said they would never be able to do…they thrived.


Working towards a higher performance 

Giving your team the opportunity to strive toward a higher performance level requires leaders to recognise where they currently are as a leader and what effects their actions have on the team. That may be an easy conversation leading into an effortless transition, or it may take some soul searching and hard conversations to make the move up that hill. Sometimes it’s not easy but if you and your team are willing to learn and put in some effort, the results can be quite spectacular.  Your team will thank you when you show that you trust and empower them enough by making the investment to improve them on an interpersonal and intrapersonal level.

Psychological Safety vs Motivation & Accountability: Is it a choice?

Psychological Safety at work is significant as psychological safety coupled with high levels of motivation & accountability are vital to a team’s success in your workplace. Simply put into four zones on a high/low graph, we can work towards a learning culture that innovates and encourages wellbeing.

Apathy Zone – Your team is in conflict. No one wants to work too hard, there is no innovation and relationships are strained. The leaders are authoritarian and emotionally volatile who are unlikely to want to change.

Anxiety Zone – If your workplace is results focused, encouraging high-performance measures such as reaching sales targets and KPI statistics while not really looking after the people, then this is where you live. A competitive environment where stress and burnout is the primary result. Toxic behaviours run under the guise of purpose while masking the real impact of employee wellbeing.

Comfort Zone – Employees believe they’re doing a good job but have little desire to improve or think differently. It’s where ideas go to die. Psychological safety is high but there is no accountability for mistakes or excellence.

Learning Zone – Employees work in a supportive environment where they work together to be better than they were the day before. Goal achievement and reporting are important indicators of success. Trust in the team leader and all members is important for continual improvement and harmony within the workplace.