Unicorn Chasing at Microsoft: An Odyssey of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

While at Microsoft, driving cultural change was one of my greatest challenges. Establishing psychological safety felt like chasing a unicorn – elusive yet vital. This “unicorn” was no myth; it was the real goal of creating an environment where people felt free to be transparent, ask hard questions, make mistakes, and voice dissent without fear.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by a team that didn’t just tolerate this hunt, but embraced it. Their genuine enthusiasm and commitment were the bedrock upon which we started to construct an environment of psychological safety. Together, we rolled up our sleeves, opened our minds, and set about turning our corporate culture into something resembling more of a supportive community than a mere workspace. This was a hard fought journey of cultivating the fine art of psychological safety in the bustling, code-ridden corridors of Microsoft.

Reflecting on our journey, I wanted to share some tips for other teams who want to foster psychological safety:

The Elephant’s Ear and the Meerkat’s Vigil

Imagine you’re both an elephant and a meerkat. Be all ears like the elephant, attentive and empathetic, taking in the murmurs and whispers that often go unheard in the corporate cacophony. Yet, also have the meerkat’s vigilance to ensure you don’t cross over into the shadowy realm of invasive micromanagement.

A Sword of Candor in a Sheath of Respect

Encouraging candor is akin to handing your team a double-edged sword. It can be a tool for insightful feedback and innovative ideas, but unsheathed carelessly, it can morph into a weapon for personal attacks and destructive criticism. The sheath for this sword is respect. Promote open communication, but ensure it is wrapped in the protective layer of respect and constructiveness.

The Tilt-a-Whirl of Failure

Picture a failure as a ride on the tilt-a-whirl. It can make you dizzy and disoriented, but it can also give you a new perspective, an unusual angle to view things from. However, beware of turning this ride into an unending merry-go-round of unaccountability. Encourage viewing failures as opportunities for learning, but maintain a clear track of responsibility and the pursuit of progress.

Building the Trust Bridge

Trust is the bridge that connects the individual islands in your team into a collaborative and cohesive continent. Yet, this bridge is susceptible to the termites of inconsistency and dishonesty. To safeguard it, ensure your words match your actions, practice transparency, and uphold the highest degree of integrity.

Common Pitfalls

Building a psychologically safe environment is not without its pitfalls. Along this journey, you’ll encounter terrains where the path to psychological safety seems blocked by a massive, insurmountable boulder. These are the common blockers that hinder psychological safety in the workplace:

The Avalanche of Fear: Fear can manifest in many ways in the workplace, be it fear of retaliation, rejection, or ridicule. This fear often prevents team members from sharing their thoughts, ideas, or concerns, akin to an avalanche blocking the flow of a river.

To avoid falling into this pit, establish a culture of open, two-way feedback, reassuring your team that their voices will be heard, not penalized. As a leader, it’s your role to create an environment where your team feels comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns without the fear of reprisals.

The Forest of Apathy: In a team, every individual is unique, each bringing their unique experiences, perspectives, and ideas to the table. However, when these differences are ignored, overlooked, or undervalued, it creates a forest of apathy.

Cultivating an atmosphere of inclusion, where diversity is not just tolerated but celebrated, can prevent this.

The Quicksand of Inconsistency: Nothing erodes trust faster than inconsistency between words and actions. Like quicksand, it can swiftly pull down the edifice of psychological safety. As a leader, your actions should mirror your words, and your commitments should be followed through with action.

The Cactus of Fearful Management: A culture of fearful management, where employees are afraid to voice criticism or feedback upwards, is like a cactus in the dessert of communication. It discourages open and honest communication and stifles the growth of psychological safety. By promoting open, two-way feedback, this can be averted.

In this quest for the unicorn of psychological safety, keep in mind these four navigational stars – Empathetic Listening, Respectful Candor, Balanced View of Failure, and Unshakeable Trust. Remember, this isn’t a race with a defined finish line, but a journey, filled with obstacles, detours, and roadblocks, but also with moments of profound insights, personal growth, and team solidarity.

As you embark on this odyssey, don’t forget to pack a sense of humor and a generous dose of patience in your survival kit. Psychological safety isn’t built in a day, nor is it a one-and-done effort. The process can be a little messy, sometimes unpredictable, and requires time.

Chasing the unicorn of psychological safety may seem daunting. But remember, every step you take on this journey, no matter how small, is a step towards creating an environment where each individual feels valued, heard, and safe. An environment where the team isn’t just a collection of employees working towards a common goal, but a supportive, understanding, and empathetic community.

I learned that chasing unicorns isn’t about capturing them but about appreciating their beauty, understanding their nature, and fostering an environment where they can thrive. So, here’s to your journey in chasing the unicorn of psychological safety. Happy hunting!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.