U.S. Bank’s Chief Ethics Officer, Katie Lawler, spoke to Ethisphere Executive Editor Tyler Lawrence about the concept of “psychological safety,” how important it is to a speak-up culture, and her program’s efforts to train managers throughout U.S. Bank on how to create psychologically safe environments for employees to speak their minds.

Tyler Lawrence: Katie, thank you for joining us. Can you give us just a bit of a background on your position and what you do at U.S. Bank?

Katie Lawler: My position was created by the bank in January 2017, and it was a deliberate decision by the company to bring an even more singular focus on building an ethical culture in the organization. When we decided to create the standalone ethics function, we wanted it to have some independence, so I became the chief ethics officer and report to our general counsel.

I think what’s unique about my role is that I’m not responsible for all of the regulatory compliance programs. I’m not ethics and compliance, I am truly focused on ethics. My role is to really focus on instilling that culture of integrity across the organization and helping to integrate that into the everyday of what U.S. Bank does.

TL: Psychological safety is the topic of our conversation. Can you explain a bit more about the concept and how it first appeared on your radar to readers who don’t know?

KL: I think I probably heard about it first from Ethisphere, honestly. We were thinking about why employees don’t speak up and there’s two reasons employees tend not to report a concern: fear and futility. Fear being the lack of psychological safety, futility being bad organizational justice. As I started to do this work, we started really asking, what are our focus areas? I heard everybody talking about building a speak-up culture. And I thought, well that’s all well and good. We can ask our employees to speak up, but the onus has to be on the company and its leadership to create an environment where employees feel it’s safe to speak up.

We flipped it on its head and said, “We need to build a listen-up culture.” And then as I started really researching it, I came across Amy Edmondson’s work from Harvard on The Fearless Organization, her book that came out in late 2018. At its core, psychological safety is having an environment where people feel like it is safe to speak up, offer a new idea, report a concern, and challenge the status quo without fear. We’re trying to cultivate as an environment where people can speak up without feeling like they’re taking a risk.

TL: The idea that people should or could be able to speak up is great, but you have to create an environment where they feel like that is something that is actively promoted and safe to do.

KL: Right, we can ask people to speak up, but if we don’t respond productively when they do, they won’t do it again. So we adopted the mantra, “Speak up, listen up, follow up,” to make it more well-rounded. We want people to speak up, but we have to be prepared to listen and we have to be prepared to follow up. And that’s really that organizational justice piece of it. Because if people don’t think there’s any point, they don’t think anything will happen or that the rules don’t apply evenly, they undermine psychological safety.

TL: When you first realized that psychological safety was a useful concept, how did you think about bringing it into the organization? Who got involved, who were your other stakeholders, and what were you creating?

KL: Sure. When we first really started thinking about this in terms of cultivating psychological safety, the first thing I did was really look at the business case for this. The benefit of psychological safety goes to, how do we create an environment where we innovate, where we move quickly and ideate, where we are inclusive and really demonstrate our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion by creating that true culture of inclusion? I tried to engage some partners, and creating that shared sense that it benefits the company from a business standpoint, and it links back to so many other things that the company values.

One of the people I first engaged was our head of diversity and inclusion. I do a video series, and I asked Greg to go with me for a ride in the car, and Greg and I talked about how psychological safety is really part and parcel of our culture of inclusion. It’s about making sure people feel like their voice is truly valued.

We’re working with our leadership development folks in HR—they’re probably our other key partner—on how we develop this skill in leaders to actually behave in ways that foster psychological safety. So, we’re working closely with our enterprise education team, which is enhancing our leadership development program because we see this as a critical part of the leadership structure. We created some meeting-in-a-box tools so that we could train HR on how to facilitate conversations with their businesses. We’ve worked with DEI.

The other thing we did is introduced this concept to our ethics ambassadors, and they really embraced it. What we’ve been doing with the ambassadors is a series of road shows and leadership town halls where we are not just telling them what is psychological safety, we’re showing them survey data, and some of the research on why psychological safety helps companies perform better. We’re teaching these leaders tactical things you can do. When you have a meeting, you speak last. Some of it’s really simple, but so we’re getting out and trying to take this down into the businesses, to talk with leaders about, how do you actually do this? And the ambassadors have been a really effective vehicle for us.

TL: What specific behaviors are you training managers to exhibit to create psychological safety? What does this actually look like in practice for them?

KL: A lot of it is simply teaching people how to listen better. How do you listen and ask questions of your employees in a way that pulls them into the conversation rather than creates angst and fear? We have this really cool tool that we use, it’s these texting stories. We show an example of someone self-censoring, laboring over what to say, what they really wish they can say, and what they actually say, based on how the other person reacts.

I want to set it as a norm that we know everything isn’t perfect. We know every project is not green on the heat map. So, you build into your routine a round table discussion of tell me something that didn’t go well this week. What did you learn from it? Tell me something that’s not going well, where do you need help? Where can the team support you? Where can I support you? It’s a way of creating a sense that we know it’s not all perfect. And it gets out of people feeling afraid to admit it, or white washing. And that we also reframe challenges as opportunities to learn. Our ambassador for our technology division has introduced the idea of the blameless postmortem, an after-action review that’s about what we learned, assuming that everybody did the best they could with the information and the skills that they had.

Another thing: check your body language. I use the phrase “leaders speak last.” Let other people talk and then ask questions to clarify, or ask questions to probe. You have to be careful there, because sometimes that can tip over into interrogation. How do you behave in a way that can send the message very clearly that you really do want to listen. The other thing we’re trying to teach people is sometimes you’re going to miss and you’re going to react in a way that maybe it wasn’t productive. You’ve got to go back and address it. If somebody catches you in a really bad moment, and you react in a way that you wish you hadn’t, you’ve got to go back and apologize or just explain.

TL: Right. You really only have a few chances to establish that. And so if you bungle one, you really have to be able to go back and say, “No, actually, I messed up. I want to hear from you.” Don’t let this prevent you from speaking up again.

KL: Right. And one of the things that leads to is to practice a little bit of self-awareness. After a meeting, after a conversation, take two minutes and say, “What could have gone better? Did I do something that contributed to an unsafe environment? Did I show up in the best way possible?” It doesn’t have to be a big meditation practice. Just take a minute and say, “What could I have done differently?”

TL: That makes sense. What has the response from managers and leadership been like to this?

KL: Well, it’s really interesting because I felt like I was out there whistling in the wind for a while. I really do think it’s the current environment that we’re in, but all of a sudden this message has caught fire. And we are out doing road shows with business groups constantly right now. And the reaction has been, “This is what we need right now. Everybody’s stressed and tensed and anxious, given everything that’s going on around us, this is the message we need to hear.” It’s been really positive.

TL: You all are in Minneapolis, which has been the epicenter of a lot of the racial justice conversations that are happening right now. And I would have to think that psychological safety is also an incredibly important component of being able to have those conversations honestly.

KL: Absolutely. We’re having a series of what we’re calling “courageous conversations” that our DEI team is championing. If we’re going to have courageous conversations about race, about social justice, about systemic racism, it’s got to be a safe environment because that feels personally risky for people. And so how do we make it safe to have those conversations?

There was an interesting study Catalyst put out. Catalyst does a lot of work in advancing women, but this I think absolutely translates. They found 86 percent of male allies want to speak up and challenge sexism when they observe it, but only 31 percent do because only 31 percent feel it is safe to do so. And I’m sure you can apply that to racism, and other -isms, as well as unethical conduct. If we can move the needle and teach people how to make it safe, we can address so many of the challenges that that companies and organizations and individuals are facing.

TL: Well, Katie, any final thoughts about this topic or something broader that you want to share with our audience?

KL: Psychological safety doesn’t just address ethics, but it’s really its core about how we make better decisions. We make better decisions when we have multiple perspectives and multiple points of view, and without psychological safety people hold back and we don’t get the benefit of their points of view. And so that’s where I think it’s so important that we do this, but it’s got to start with leaders. It’s got to start with leaders, creating the environment.


As Global Chief Ethics Officer for U.S. Bank, Katie Lawler serves as the company’s leading voice and ambassador on the importance of maintaining a strong ethical, compliance-based corporate culture. She regularly advises and support executive leadership in evaluating ethics expectations and establishing and enforcing ethics policies. The Global Ethics Office is responsible for developing and implementing enterprise-wide ethics education and awareness programs and ethics policies including the Code of Ethics and Business Conduct. The GEO manages the company’s Ethics Line, a confidential resource for employees to raise concerns or ask questions. The GEO ensures that complaints are thoroughly and appropriately investigated and provides regularly reporting to executives and the Audit Committee of the board on Ethics Line activity and the overall global ethics program.

Tyler Lawrence is the Executive Editor of Ethisphere Magazine. He oversees the content of the print magazine, Ethisphere’s special reports, and other publications and online content at magazine.ethisphere.com. He may be reached at tyler.lawrence@ethisphere.com.