Psychological Safety and Attrition

As we start to think about the toll that employee turnover is taking on our businesses today, it’s best to understand why our organizations may have problems with attrition. An article in American City Business Journals‘ by Marq Burnett starts to get at some of the main underlying problems many businesses face today: Toxic Work Cultures. I found this statistic hard to fathom – “…a new report from the MIT Sloan Management Review recently found ‘a toxic corporate culture is by far the strongest predictor of industry-adjusted attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation in predicting turnover.’ ” It makes perfect sense and we discovered this last month in our executive session of the Twin Cities COO Forum Chapter Meeting – throwing money at the attrition problem doesn’t change the problem and in many ways only exacerbates it. 

Busy executives are sometimes the last people to know that they are partakers (or even the initiators) in toxic workplace environments. Taking the initial temperatures of your teams and seeing where they land on any number of measures, gives you a benchmark. But many employees are leery of answering assessments with open-ended questions for fear that their comments will be found out by management, and be directly attributable to them, with possible punishment not far behind. If the organization has a toxic workplace culture, employees fear backlash and won’t answer truthfully anyway, or will answer likely answer with “mid-line” marks – neither “yes” nor “no” to every question. This doesn’t help the company learn from its mistakes but keeps everyone in a status quo situation where nothing changes. And where silos and politics keep abounding. Psychological safety is the issue at stake in today’s businesses and the one metric, that, changing it, will give the company three unique things: 1) the ability to dissolve silos and turf wars, 2) an incredible capacity to vet any topic, solution, or problem to gain the best options, and 3) engaged employees at every level who feel heard and valued for what they bring to their teams even if they speak potentially harsh to hear truths. 

Growing psychological safety in an organization can be done but it takes a leadership team who aren’t afraid of what they will learn, along with the humility to accept the truth and want to change it. Sadly, many leaders would rather protect themselves than their employees – leading to the further eroding of psychological safety and then attrition in the company. Until you know where you truly stand in an anonymous benchmark survey that uses Rating or Likert scale questions and in one that doesn’t use open-ended questions, you are stabbing in the dark at what you think might be the problems. Wouldn’t you rather know what they are?

You want to fix things, but may know where your employees think the problems exist. You can surmise all you want, but if you don’t get accurate measurements on the needful questions you need to ask, you will know nothing and fix possibly the wrong things. 

As part of a global consortium, we’ve been studying teams and their needs for years and have come up with 11 metrics that we can follow to some needed conclusions. Here they are, in order:

  1. Foundational Level
    1. Emotional Intelligence – We seek to understand others, as much as we seek to understand and regulate ourselves
    2. Psychological Safety – We feel safe among each other
    3. Team Structure – We know what to do and are structure to attain it
    4. Team Effectiveness – We think, act and decide together
  2. Level 1 – Direction
    1. Complementarity – We value what each member of the Team brings to the Team
    2. Results-Driven – We have a drive to achieve our results, goals, objectives, and ambitions
    3. Customer-Driven – We know our customer, inside and out
  3. Level 2 – Belief
    1. Conviction – We believe we can achieve
    2. Values – “We” supersedes “me”
  4. Level 3 – Fluidity
    1. Agility
    2. Co-Creation


Unfortunately, in the earliest results of the Assessment we created, teams may think they can have Fluidity before they have mastered the Foundational Levels of Teaming. However, this sets the team up for failure – how can you have Agility when the team doesn’t have the ability to have Emotional Intelligence or Co-Create when the team does not have Psychological Safety. In this case, the team seeks to have a pseudo-Agility or pseudo-Co-Creation, but it is not even at a level of maturity that can undergird these higher principles if it hasn’t mastered the Foundation Elements of good teaming. Therefore, finding out where the team falls on each of these levels can help us figure out what needs to happen in their development earlier rather than later for attaining the maturity the team and organization need. We learn to crawl the right way before we walk, and walk before we run, skate, ski (sometimes).