August 18, 2022

WELL Building Standard Part 4: Culture & Community

Imagine waking up tomorrow with the realization that you made a huge mistake at work. How would you feel? What would you do?

What if you realize your boss or superior made the mistake? How would you respond? Do you feel comfortable speaking up, raising a red flag, asking a question?

Amy Edmondson coined the term Psychological Safety in a 1999 journal article discussing groundbreaking research studying whether better care teams make fewer medication errors. Initial results from the study surprised her. At face value, the data showed that high performance teams made more errors than lower performing teams. Digging deeper, she discovered that these teams weren’t actually making more errors, they were just reporting more errors.

I define psychology safety as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for inter-personal risk-taking. Think of it as felt permission for candor. - Amy Edmondson

The research uncovered the idea that a safe, supportive culture open to learning from mistakes created an environment of higher growth, learning, and innovation than those where fear causes individuals to shy away from speaking up – whether to share ideas or point out issues. In the 20+ years since this initial research, Amy has continued to dive deeper into understanding the impact of strong, safe cultures where each individual can thrive.

Figure 1 adapted from Amy Edmondson

In the first few blogs in this series, we discussed the impact of happiness on productivity, the role of the built environment to positively impact people and how thriving individuals contribute to thriving organizations and communities. The principles of the WELL Building Standard and its ten concepts aim to create environments that are inherently human-centric; holistically improving the health and wellbeing of anyone who may interact with those spaces. We believe this is critical in any built environment as a key ingredient for a healthy, psychologically safe culture.

We also know that people are not solitary creatures. Work is often collaborative with teams of interdependent individuals combining their unique talents toward a common goal. When that's the case, whether in corporate workplace or healthcare environments, culture and community are just as important as technical knowledge in predicting successful business outcomes. A culture of psychological safety relies on behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that are consistent across all levels of an organization.

Diversity is a Predictor of Innovation

Numerous studies have shown how diverse teams perform better than their homogenous counterparts – both a result of inherent diversity such as race and gender, and acquired diversity gained through life experiences. Including and valuing everyone’s voice is the right thing to do and good for business. But the presence of diversity does not automatically lead to inclusion and equity which are necessary components of true belonging.

Creating spaces where diverse talent can thrive requires a clear understanding of the needs and desires of a diverse group of stakeholders. Spaces supporting diverse talent should recognize diverse preferences, work styles, and needs. This includes a variety of space types allowing individuals and teams to choose the right space for their style and the work at hand. This variety should encompass scale of space, type of lighting, the level of noise, and ease of access or use. There’s no one style of space that will meet the range of needs for all people, so having a variety of spaces supports a truly inclusive environment

In addition to the holistic structure of the WELL Building Standard, the Seven Principles of Universal Design provide a guidepost for ensuring that spaces are designed and operated “in response to the diversity of people and abilities” in an equitable and measurable way.

Armed with inclusive policies and procedures along with campuses, buildings, and spaces that allow everyone to participate, organizations are positioned to set the tone for a psychologically safe culture where project teams and care teams can thrive and innovate.

Leadership Sets the Tone

Grassroots movements are inspiring and powerful, but major shifts will not take hold until the holistic culture is aligned and actively supporting these priorities. For an organization to be successful in this, the role of leaders is critical. What can a leader do to shift a culture?

  1. Ensure that the Vision is Clear
    Give individuals and teams a clear understanding of the organization’s goals and mission, ensuring they can connect their work to the success of the organization in meeting these goals.
  2. Provide Autonomy and Support
    Recognize the talent and professionalism of the individuals on the team, allowing them to execute on the vision that was set knowing you’re there supporting as needed (not micromanaging); reframing problems and providing resources.
  3. Model Behaviors that Contribute to a Psychologically Safe Culture
    These include curiosity, empathy, and productive disagreements. This relies on humility, realizing that no individual has all of the answers and we need the talents of each member of the organization to be successful.
  4. Anticipate What's Coming
    Know that nothing happens exactly as planned. Focus on strategic foresight – looking around the corner to execute on the plan while adjusting to what arises along the way.

Spaces directly contribute to our sense of safety, either enabling or undermining our propensity to share information, learn from each other, and reach new levels of efficacy and innovation. Spaces can be designed to build a strong sense of belonging or prevent people from participating to the best of their ability.

Accountability and psychological safety are imperative to enabling a culture of learning and continuous improvement. Space is a direct contributor to this cultural outcome. Coupled with policies, procedures and cultural norms that are modeled by leaders, organizations can achieve successful business outcomes that positively impact clients and team members alike. Organizations that have achieved successful results from these practices know and understand the commitment and focus necessary to sustain success in this new world of work.

Progressive Companies has WELL accredited professionals throughout the firm. We’d love to answer any questions you have about WELL Building Standard or discuss a project you have in mind. 

Building a psychologically safe workplace | Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE

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