Local governments are being asked to deal with complex and difficult problems, like drug abuse, climate change, social inequalities and more. Given the high stakes of the issues and the potentially large sums of money needed to address them, there can be a justifiable interest that the government (and its staff) be held “accountable.” This sounds fine, in theory, but there are some practical problems with a focus on accountability. Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant points out that focusing on only accountability raises anxiety and impedes communication. What is the solution? To be clear, we are not anti-accountability. As ancient wisdom prescribes, balance in all things. What balances with accountability? Psychological safety.
Psychological safety is a shared belief, held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks. It is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect. Psychological safety is necessary for challenging deeply held beliefs and assumptions and taken-for-granted ways of operating. It is critical for making progress on the complex problems local government is faced with. This paper describes how local governments can create psychological safety and integrate it with accountability to get the best results for our communities.