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Would Your Employees Tell You If You Weren't Wearing Any Clothes?

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

There once was an emperor who was obsessed with fashion. He had a coat for every hour of the day and ignored many of his responsibilities in favor of expanding his wardrobe or showing it off.

One day, two swindlers came to town and claimed to weave the most magnificent of fabrics imaginable. Not only were their clothes uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

The emperor was sold. He paid the swindlers large sums of money to get started immediately. As the swindlers worked, the emperor was curious about their progress but was afraid to look himself, so he sent his honest old minister to check on them. To the minister’s dismay, he could not see anything at all. He thought to himself, “Can it be that I’m a fool? I’d have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be a minister? It would never do to let on that I can’t see the cloth.” Rather than admit he could not see the cloth, the minister decided to praise it describing it as enchanting and beautiful and reported back to the emperor how fine the clothing would be.

The swindlers asked for more money, more silk, and more gold thread. The excited emperor obliged and sent another trustworthy official to see how the work progressed. The official repeated the same behavior as the minister, praising the material for its beautiful colors and exquisite pattern, even though he could see nothing either. He reported back to the emperor how the cloth held him spellbound in its beauty.

The emperor could not contain his excitement any longer and visited the swindlers himself. Only, to his horror, he could not see the non-existent cloth. He thought, “Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the emperor?” Yet, he could not let anyone know, so he praised the cloth and gave it his highest approval. His entire entourage joined in to express their admiration for the cloth that they could not see.

The swindlers pretended to take the cloth off the loom while the emperor undressed. They pretended to put the new clothes on him and all shouted their praises. It was time to show off his new clothes to the town.

So, off went the emperor in procession through town. Naked.

Why wouldn’t the emperor’s advisors admit they could not see the cloth? They were afraid. They were afraid of humiliation and retaliation. If their emperor thought they were unfit for their office or were unusually stupid, he would fire them. As a result of their insecurity, they let their leader humiliate himself, embarrass the empire, lose money, and create some unseeable memories for the innocent townsfolk. Many lessons are derived from this famous parable by Hans Christian Andersen but one, in particular, stands out: the importance of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is defined as the belief that someone can speak up without the risk of punishment or ridicule. And, it is vital for workplace health. Psychological safety has been linked to greater innovation, high-quality decision making, and healthy group dynamics among co-workers. It also has been associated with higher integrity in the workplace.

Leadership researcher, Amy Edmundson, wanted to assess how psychological safety affected medical errors in healthcare settings. Her initial findings revealed that healthcare practices that were more psychologically safe made more medical mistakes. However, when looking more closely at the data, she discovered an important distinction: It wasn’t that employees of more psychologically safe practices made more mistakes. It was that they reported more mistakes. In other words, healthcare practices who had more psychologically safe environments were more likely to speak up when they messed up. This means they felt safe to admit when they had made an error which created an opportunity for the organization to learn and ultimately decrease the likelihood of a similar mistake happening again in the future.

Psychological safety is also related to job satisfaction. In our own study with an American school district, psychological safety was significantly predictive of teacher job satisfaction.

As seen in the graph above, as teachers reported greater psychological safety in the workplace, their job satisfaction grew.

If psychological safety is so important, then what can a workplace do to promote it? It starts with strong leadership. Leaders have the ability to make or break the climate of an organization. Using the same sample of U.S. teachers, we found principal leadership traits significantly predicted the psychological safety reported by the teachers.

As principal leadership ratings increased, so did the teachers’ reports of psychological safety.

Good leaders produce healthy environments. Healthy environments enable employee well-being and organizational productivity. As a leader, it’s important to create an environment where employees feel safe to speak up. Or else, those employees may fail to inform you when you aren’t wearing any clothes.

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