As the young and newly minted CEO of a large music retail company in the US, I got handed one of those life lessons that has influenced my organizational behavior ever since. It came out of nowhere, was not expected, and provided an experience of slap-inthe-face learning at its finest.

My habit was to show up to work a bit early, but I seldom beat our intrepid receptionist or the hearty few souls that seemed to sleep at the office. As was my habit, being deep in thought about the upcoming day, I would make a cursory nod and keep walking.

One day, she stopped me. “May I ask you a question?” she asked tentatively.

“Of course, you can.”

“Do you realize that by 9 am the entire building, every floor, knows you are in a bad mood?” she asked bravely. I remember stopping dead in my tracks and thinking, “What the heck are you talking about?” She just smiled and explained her position.

This led to a keen observation on her part: “You never smile when you come in… you just look gruff and do not say anything. Within minutes, the word is out that you are angry.” Then she threw out the kicker, “That is why people try to schedule their meetings with you in the afternoon when you are in a better mood.”

Starting at that moment, I was forced to confront the unintended consequences of my behavior. Upon reflection, I realized it was me being not present and, in the moment, lost in thought around people to whom it mattered what my attitude was. This was not my intention. If anything, the opposite was true. I genuinely cared for these people, and I felt horrible. Yet the reality was people did not feel safe or comfortable and, in fact, changed their behavior dramatically because of my unawareness of such a fundamental behavior on my part.

But there it was. Regardless of my intention, my behavior had elicited a response that was felt throughout the organizational HQ of 1,100 people, even to the point of folks scheduling meetings (a real consequence) at a different time of the day. Who knows what else was happening because of my unintended frown at the beginning of the workday? Through my embarrassment, I vowed to myself, and the receptionist that I would improve starting that day.


The hard truth was that my unawareness had established an organizational environment lacking in what we would now term “psychological safety”. I had established an environment with people in the office where they did not feel it was safe to tell the truth without a negative consequence. When such organizational silence is present then psychological safety is absent and performance losses are as large as they are invisible. In an environment lacking a sense of trust and safety, enterprise performance, innovation, creativity, fun, engagement and business results suffer. They suffer big.

Research by Harvard and Stanford universities, and a rigorously conducted study by Google with 180 internal teams called Project Aristotle, conclusively determined that psychological safety is the single highest correlating factor to high performance for a team. Nothing else comes close. The common denominator for all high-performing teams is the presence of psychological safety within their membership.

According to Dr. Amy Edmonson of Harvard University, psychological safety is “a condition in which one feels (a) included, (b) safe to learn, (c) safe to contribute, and (d) safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.”

So, what to do? As CEO, it is your job to make sure these conditions are present and encouraged in your organization. These five dimensions can be represented by C.A.R.E.S.:

Certainty: I know what is expected of me in the context of my job, supervisor and immediate peers ( team).

Autonomy: I have the freedom to make decisions within my delegated authority.

Relatedness: I feel connected to my team, I feel I belong and trust they will have my back if I make a mistake or express a different opinion.

Equity: I feel work assignments, recognition and punishments are fair in the context of my team.

Significance: I feel important in the context of the team, and notice how it is about the team and not just my leader.

Remember, trust and psychological safety are related but different. Trust is a dimension of the relationship between two individuals, while psychological safety is a dimension of the relationship between multiple individuals. This means your team’s psychological safety operates as a group-level phenomenon.

By the way, in case the suspense might keep you up at night, you will be happy to know I was able to overcome the bad start and foster a productive environment. Our company grew exponentially and eventually Rolling Stone Magazine named me as one of the 84 most influential people in the music business. I remain grateful to the fearless receptionist that spoke up. She went on to become a Senior HR Executive. [C]

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Tim Burrill
Membership Manager & Executive Assistant
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