Should You Forget About Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety remains an important and much talked about topic in Lean world. Why? Because 99+ percent of business leaders remain committed to classical management, and there is no evidence to indicate that will change anytime soon. In a 2019 blog post on psychological safety, I said:

Psychological safety is a benefit bestowed by top managers onto workers. Benefits given to workers have costs — perhaps not economic costs, but certainly social, political, and philosophical costs (read this book to learn why). These are costs that most top leaders are unwilling to bear. [Additionally], fear is useful to leaders.

While I believe that psychological safety in organizations should be a human right, it is not presently that. Psychological safety remains at the discretion of leaders in an organization. That could mean five or six leaders in a small company, or thousands of leaders in a very large organization. Yes, the top leader “sets the tone” for psychological safety, or its opposite, fear, but the many leaders below the CEO are mostly free to do as they please. If people who work for a living want psychological safety, they have to get it through organized social and political activism. However, the proponents for psychological safety in Lean world show no inclination of engaging in organized social and political activism because they do not savor a fight with top leaders or business interests. So instead, their strategy is merely to complain about the lack of psychological safety.

What are the alternatives?

Aristotle defined three modes of persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. These are appeals to ethics, emotions, and logic, respectively.

Ethos means to establish your authority, credibility, or integrity on a particular subject so the people you are trying to influence see you as knowledgeable and trustworthy. It is more than just rank in an organization. It also encompasses knowledge of the work gained from personal experience. In a word, expertise.

Pathos means speaking in ways that generate an emotional response from an audience because emotions are often more persuasive than logic (politicians know this very well). So the speaker must provide a vision or a story that people find compelling, or speak in ways that generate an emotional response that is favorable to the speaker’s argument. This could range from respectful to abusive language. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing if circumstances deem it necessary. Anything from respectful to abusive language can evoke feelings of anger, fear, happiness, or dissatisfaction.

Logos means speaking in ways that present clear and consistent logical arguments. Such arguments will rely on evidence, facts, and data, as well as the basic soundness of the argument (reasoning). Good logical arguments often connect to Ethos and Pathos.

Now, let’s think about this: How did Toyota create the Toyota Production System and, concurrently, The Toyota Way? The principal method was kaizen. But how were Toyota people motivated to practice kaizen every day so that the company could quickly catch up to Western automakers? How were they persuaded to find the energy and spirit to discover and learn?

While it is highly unlikely that Taiichi Ohno specifically invoked Aristotle and the three modes of persuasion, my view is that they must have been used by Ohno in a similar form to motivate people to improve processes by the daily practice of creative kaizen.


Taiichi Ohno came up through the ranks and had many years of hands-on expertise, and thus he had credibility, integrity, moral character, and trust. So when he spoke, people listened. That confirms the existence of Ethos.

Ohno-san is legendary for challenging and scolding (training) the people that reported to him. When someone did something he would ask “Why did you do that?” If you did something good, he reportedly walked away without comment, which indicated his approval — and a non-spoken admonition to do better. These training behaviors — according to Chihiro Nakao, former Taiho Kogyo plant manager and one of Taiichi Ohno’s assistants, Ohno-san was not a sensei in the meaning of a “teacher” — surely generated an emotional response among Ohno’s team and motivated them to think harder and try harder. And it worked. That confirms the existence of Pathos.

With respect to Logos, Ohno-san’s clear, logical business arguments are well-documented in his writings (see “Taiichi Ohno the Businessman“). Further, Ohno’s logical arguments centered on the fact that business survival is not guaranteed and there are many reasons why profit is not being generated. So people must improve processes every day in response to new problems, changes in circumstances, and external competition. Logically, he also recognized that he did not know the answer to the problems people were working on. He gave them direction — targets to achieve — but did not tell them how to get there. He gave no answers, so people had to think. That confirms the existence of Logos.

Taiichi Ohno did not provide a psychologically safe environment. He scolded people whom he saw as lazy, and at times he crushed people. It takes bravery and resilience to contend with that. What was most important for Ohno-san was the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos of business survival and becoming more competitive by improving processes to reduce costs, generate profit, improve quality and productivity, reduce lead-times, and develop people’s ability to think.

But it is more than just Taiichi Ohno. If you have been a careful observer of Toyota top executive’s rise in the company (i.e., their varied work experiences and the importance of “learn by doing”) and a careful reader of their words over the years, you will recognize their longstanding commitment to the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos of business survival, improving competitiveness by improving processes, and developing people. So, it is not just the multi-decade act of creating TPS and The Toyota Way, it is also their further evolution once TPS was more-or-less fully established circa 1973.

Yes, the times, circumstances, and challenges that Toyota Motor Corporation faced between 1947 and 1978 were different from other companies and the times we live in. And yes, the culture and values may be different and perhaps managers don’t scold people as they once did (or as Ohno-san did). But all of this remains relevant to today’s workplaces because things are not as different as we imagine them to be. The fundamentals of cost reduction, quality and productivity improvement, reducing lead-times, and developing people always remain important in competitive business activity, as does pressure on hourly and salaried staff to perform to expectations that are often plainly unreasonable.

What the above suggests is that psychological safety is nice to have, but it is not essential. Even within the realm of “Real Lean” organizations, where both “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” are operative, you still need Ethos, Pathos, and Logos (or some version of them). And “Respect for People” needs to reside in all three, Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Oftentimes, even in a “Real Lean” organization, the top leader’s Ethos is due to more to their high status than their expertise, and so trust is weak. Pathos is typically routine and uninspiring (“crying wolf” often; failing to inspire longtime company employees). And Logos is narrow or lacking in detail; generally, a failure to connect the dots that would make an argument more persuasive and long-lasting.

Then, there are the vast majority of organizations that practice “Fake Lean” — “Continuous Improvement” without “Respect for People.” Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are weak or non-existent in large part because leaders do not care about people. They do not care about having to persuade employees. Instead, they choose the easy way: a simplistic demand for compliance to their goals and objectives, including “Continuous Improvement.”

Lean people are rebels. If you do not feel like a rebel, you probably are not a Lean person. Yes, you like Lean management and yes, you think it is better than classical management, but you succumb to the demand by your leaders for compliance. Rebels don’t need psychological safety. They thrive without it (believe me, I know!).

This brings us to the thorny problem of business survival. In so-called “Western” management practice, business survival is not a goal. A business is nothing more than a piece of property to be bought, merged, spun-off, or sold to the highest bidder, or left to die on its own accord. A purchaser can grow the business, sabotage the business, or bankrupt the business, whichever is more profitable. All employees serve at the leader’s will and are expendable. The Ethos, Pathos, and Logos of business survival and the drive to become ever more competitive that animated, and still animates, Toyota does not exist for most companies. What does exist is the Ethos, Pathos, and Logos of making more money for shareholders, by any means necessary, legally and sometimes otherwise, which motivates executives far more than it motivates non-executive employees.

So, you might want to ask yourself: “Is psychological safety really the thing to be most concerned about?” If it is, if you see it as a human right, then complaining about its pervasive absence is no good. You must engage in organized social and political activism. If you decline to do that, then forget about psychological safety. If psychological safety is not important to you, then all you need to do is comply with the demands of your leadership team and earn your paycheck for as long as it lasts. If you are a rebel, then you have no need for psychological safety and have almost everything you need to produce change. But, most likely, you are missing one very important thing: a detailed understanding of what you are up against. Gaining that knowledge will help you do more, better.

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