Psychological Safety for Successful KPI Transformations

by Stacey Barr |

Here are 13 practical ways to nurture psychological safety in your organisation, so its KPI transformation can succeed.

A woman holding a KPI report behind her back as she hesitates to join a meeting. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/fizkes

For any organisational transformation to succeed, psychological safety is vital. The Center for Creative Leadership define psychological safety as…

“…the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”

Andrew White et al, in their HBR article, lists psychological safety as one of the six levers for successful transformation:

“In a workplace with a high degree of psychological safety, employees feel confident that they can share their honest opinions and concerns without fear of retribution. When trust and psychological safety are missing, it’s difficult to persuade your workforce to make necessary changes.”

Improving or updating your performance measurement approach is an organisational transformation. And it’s even more tricky when it comes to psychological safety, because traditional performance measurement is more threatening to most people than other types of transformations. That’s for reasons like these:

  • KPIs or metrics or measures have often been used to blame or judge people.
  • Measuring reveals the truth about performance, which can highlight failure.
  • Improving performance requires fundamental change, but challenging the status quo is risky.

Can you think of any instances in your own work life where colleagues resisted better measurement because of one of these reasons? If you can, or if you want to avoid any instances of this in your future KPI work, here are four ways to build psychological safety around performance measurement.

Four stages of KPI psychological safety…

Timothy Clark wrote a book in 2020 called The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation”. Those four stages are a great framework to pace our way to building more psychological safety into our KPI culture. Adapting from Timothy’s model, we might frame the four stages like this:

  1. Inclusion Safety: Everyone feels safe to participate in any KPI activity, including selecting, implementing and using KPIs.
  2. Learner Safety: Everyone feels safe to learn about and with KPIs, including measure design, interpretation and testing improvement actions to help performance improve.
  3. Contributor Safety: Every KPI team member feels safe to make suggestions and lead activities, including measure selection, data sourcing, measure reporting, and performance improvement initiatives.
  4. Challenger Safety: Every KPI team member feels safe to challenge the status quo, including the traditions and sacred cows that are in the way of true performance transformation.

Stage 1: KPI Inclusion Safety starts with invitation

In many organisations, performance measurement has been ‘done to’ people. They’ve been told what to measure, told what to improve, and even ‘performance managed’ by KPIs. And consequently, they don’t feel welcomed or safe to be part of the conversation about what is worth measuring and how to use those measures to improve team and organisational performance.

To help more people feel safe to be included and participate in measurement, often all they need is a real invitation to participate. It might be participating in a single step of the measurement process, or the entire thing.

In PuMP, our performance measurement methodology, we nurture KPI inclusion safety like this:

  • We use a PuMP Mind Map discussion to invite people to discuss the problems with how performance measurement currently happens in their team or organisation.
  • We invite volunteers to join Measures Teams, so they can take up the opportunity to improve the KPIs and measurement activities they are affected by.
  • We use a Measure Gallery to invite everyone to easily and safely come and see and learn and share ideas about how a set of performance measures are being developed.

Stage 2: KPI Learner Safety starts with discovery

For any organisation that wants to improve how it uses measurement, learning cannot be avoided. Learning a new methodology is part of that, but most of the learning is done in implementing it. That’s because a good performance measurement methodology changes the way we use KPIs, as tools for learning and not just evaluation.

To help more people feel safe to learn through performance measurement, they need time and space and a vehicle to accommodate learning as a deliberate part of the journey. It needs to be more about discovery, not just getting it done.

In PuMP, our performance measurement methodology, we nurture KPI learner safety like this:

  • We use PuMP Pilots to start implementation with new teams, so they can more quickly and easily discover and learn how good KPIs are created, without pressure to get it right first time.
  • We set target trajectories, not thresholds or monthly targets, so the team can see they have time to learn about their processes and the best actions that will improve them.
  • We reframe failure as feedback, and never stop reminding ourselves of this. We might even celebrate failure to reinforce the learning that comes from it.

Stage 3: KPI Contributor Safety starts with ownership

Meaningful measures and fundamental performance improvement cannot happen if people don’t feel safe to contribute new ideas and throw themselves into implementing them. They must feel complete ownership of the performance problem first, and that’s the starting point for KPI contributor safety.

To help everyone feel safe to contribute in the performance measurement process, three things are particularly important. The first is a healthy definition of accountability, so everyone knows that their contributions won’t be judged by the KPIs themselves. The second is KPI training, so everyone knows exactly what kind of contribution is most useful and valued. And the third is collaboration, so everyone knows their best and unique contribution.

In PuMP, our performance measurement methodology, we nurture KPI contributor safety like this:

  • We form our Measures Teams with deliberate thought about the skills and experiences any good KPI team will need.
  • We redefine accountability so that people know KPIs are not rods for their backs, but tools in their hands; tools that help them contribute more to the organisation’s performance.
  • We provide proper KPI training in PuMP, so that all Measures Team members have skill and confidence to perform each step of the performance measurement process.
  • We use practical KPI templates that guide conversations about each PuMP technique, so each Measures Team member can focus more on contributing exactly what’s needed at the time.

Stage 4: KPI Challenger Safety starts with permission

Often, fundamental changes to business processes and policies are needed before performance can improve. This means the status quo (and many sacred cows) need to be challenged. This cannot be done without a lot of psychological safety, because the risks are so much higher for the person brave enough to challenge.

To help everyone feel safe to challenge the status quo, we first need the bolstering of those first three stages of psychological safety. After that, it’s about permission and protection. Permission to be brave and speak up. Protection from any backlash.

In PuMP, our performance measurement methodology, we nurture KPI challenger safety like this:

  • We use ground rules in our KPI sessions, that give permission for anything to be challenged in the context of elevating the teams’s awareness and expanding on their options.
  • We adopt group dynamics facilitation style, one that takes care of the group process and individual experience at least as much as implementation of the PuMP steps.
  • We experiment before we implement any performance improvement idea, so no sacred cows are killed by mistake.

Building all four of these stages of KPI psychological safety takes time, and it depends a lot on your leadership to get behind it and role model it. That’s the ultimate way to create KPI psychological safety, for sure. But it’s not the only way to nurture it: you can start with a single Measures Team.

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