Psychological Safety and Attrition

As we start to think about the toll that employee turnover and “Quiet Quitting” is taking on our businesses today, it may be 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. We discovered this in our June executive session of our Twin Cities COO Forum Chapter Meeting: throwing money at the attrition problem doesn’t change it, and in many ways only exacerbates the problem. 

Busy executives are sometimes the last people to know that they are partakers (or even the instigators) in toxic workplace environments. Taking the initial temperatures of your teams and seeing where they land on any number of measures, gives you a better benchmark.

But, there are underlying problems with trying to take the initial temperature of your organization’s culture, if done in the wrong way:

·       Many employees are leery of answering open-ended questions. They fear their comments will be easily attributable back to them, with possible punishment not far behind.

·       If the organization already has a toxic workplace culture, employees fear backlash, retaliation, or removal from their department/division, therefore they won’t answer truthfully.

·       Team members may feel that issuing the benchmark survey is an attempt of management to placate employee feelings without actually doing something with the results. It is the “flavor of the month” – one in which they don’t have to change anything as long as they play along with the flavor. They know management doesn’t actually mean to do anything with the results, so they take it but revert back to their current workflows soon afterward.

·       Or they will answer likely answer with “mid-line” answers – neither “yes” nor “no” to every question even if they have strong feelings about the them. This can do triple damage: obstructing real problems from being seen, working on the wrong problems, or intimating that nothing is actually wrong.

This doesn’t help your company learn from its mistakes but keeps everyone in a status quo situation where nothing changes.

Even worse, this is where silos and politics increase their progress inside your organization.

Psychological safety is THE issue at stake in today’s businesses and on the front-lines of attrition.

However, this is the one metric that can change any organization. If you change your organization’s Psychological Safety, it will give you three unique things:

·       the ability to dissolve currently existing silos and turf wars, and start mending other toxic behaviors,

·       an incredible capacity for all employees to vet any topic, solution, or problem to create the best options and paths forward, and

·       engaged employees at every level feel heard and valued for what they bring to their teams, even if they speak initially hard-to-hear truths.

The result of this last outcome is that employees are more apt to stay even if there is a problem inside the organization. They will also be more likely to help find solutions to the problems themselves. 

Growing psychological safety in an organization can be done but it takes a leadership team willing to hear and humbly explore what employees voice as concerns.

Sadly, many leaders would rather protect themselves rather than their employees – leading to the further eroding of psychological safety and then attrition from the company. This is one reason that legitimate whistleblowers will leave after they’ve blown the whistle.

Until you know where you truly stand in an anonymous benchmark survey that only uses Rating or Likert scale questions (no open-ended questions), you are stabbing in the dark at what you think might be the problems. Wouldn’t you rather know what they might be so you could fix them?

If our leaders cannot get accurate measurements on the most important questions from their employees’ perspectives, they may try to fix 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

a.       Emotional Intelligence – We seek to understand others, as much as we seek to understand and regulate ourselves

b.       Psychological Safety – We feel safe among each other

c.       Team Structure – We know what to do and are structure to attain it

d.       Team Effectiveness – We think, act and decide together

  1. Level 1 – Direction

a.       Complementarity – We value what each member of the Team brings to the Team

b.       Results-Driven – We have a drive to achieve our results, goals, objectives, and ambitions

c.       Customer-Driven – We know our customer, inside and out

  1. Level 2 – Belief

a.       Conviction – We believe we can achieve

b.       Values – “We” supersedes “me”

  1. Level 3 – Fluidity

a.       Agility

b.       Co-Creation


Unfortunately, many teams feel that they have achieved Level 2 or 3 attributes so that they don’t feel the need to pay attention to the Foundational aspects of their team.


Then we have to ask:

·       Can a team truly have Agility if each member doesn’t understand or embrace their own Emotional Intelligence? Or

·       Can a team have great Co-Creational abilities if they fail the Psychological Safety benchmarks of the team?


Not obtaining Foundational Level learning sets teams up for failure. In these cases, the team has pseudo-Agility or pseudo-Co-Creation, but trips over its immaturity. This results in abnormal team development where the team must regress before it can again go forward.


Therefore, finding out where the team falls on each of these levels can help us determine the team’s developmental needs earlier rather than later. We learn to crawl before we walk, and walk before we run, skate, or ski.