As I read the Washington Post article, ‘Buffalo Wild Wings asked a group to move because a customer didn’t ‘want black people sitting near him,’ I asked myself how employees and managers of this respectable restaurant chain could allow this to happen? The answer is clear to me. When there is fear of retribution, fear of speaking up, fear of contributing a new idea, and even fear of questioning a manager or person of authority, bad things happen.

You may have never heard of the term psychological safety, but if you’ve ever felt secure, safe, or content within a team, you might well have experienced psychological safety. If you have felt the opposite, chances are there was a lack of psychological safety.

The psychological safety model enables mutual respect through candor and openness, setting high standards, and inspiring team members to reach them. Companies with a trusting workplace continuously perform better and reduce the risk of “headline-making” mistakes. People are empowered to speak up about what they see, helping to avert colossal failures (the headlines you don’t ever want to see) as well as human safety (injury causing) mistakes. These high-performing teams are dramatically more likely to avoid adverse outcomes.

After the shock of reading the article receded, I asked myself how psychologically safe the employees involved in this incident felt and how that impacted their decisions and subsequent actions.

In the article, the Washington Post quotes a Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson as responding that the company “values an inclusive environment and has zero-tolerance for discrimination of any kind.” While this is probably true, the values and mission of the organization seem not to be communicated down to the store-front teams who interact with customers every day. In fact, their website proudly states, “Our Values: Hustle – Take ownership in providing a winning guest experience. Anticipate and embrace change with zeal.”

Psychological safety is so critical that it is one of the first questions we explore when evaluating a new business client. At Black Diamond Leadership, our executive coaches believe psychological safety is the foundation of a corporate culture that supports open communication and fosters employee feedback, creativity, and critical thought within high-performing teams.

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School, spent a decade looking at how people react and interact in VUCA ((Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) on-the-job situations and within the dynamic and quickly changing world in which we now live. Out of this work, she co-founded the Fearless Organization and created a robust assessment to measure the psychological safety of teams and organizations.

Black Diamond Leadership is part of a cadre of 18 Psychological Safety coaches who are first certified to use this assessment tool in North America. The assessment measures the responses to statements like “If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you” and “It is safe to take a risk on this team” to evaluate where a workforce lies on the psychological safety spectrum.

Considering the two questions from the assessment tool I highlighted above, what do you think the level of psychological safety of the Chicago Buffalo Wild Wings’ team mentioned in the article was? Ask yourself:

  • When presented with a complex situation, how did the team react?
  • Were team members afraid to speak up and share their opinions?
  • If they did share, were their opinions valued?
  • Did team members feel the team offered a safe environment to make a mistake or try something different?
  • Afterward, did employees feel they could share their thoughts about the experience with managers to learn from the event and move forward together?

Now more than ever, companies need to create a culture of trust, acceptance, and a culture of adaptability and continuous learning; so that team members feel comfortable speaking up and speaking out. In addition to promoting innovation, creativity, and taking chances, improving psychological safety reduces the risk of headline-making mistakes like this one because teams that communicate well are dramatically more likely to avoid adverse outcomes.

On its website, Buffalo Wild Wings showcases values like sportsmanship, community, and fun. From this incident, we can infer that there is a breakdown in communicating those values to their front-line employees and perhaps in their leadership training and teams’ psychological safety. It sounds like the employees were fearful of making the wrong decision in this instance. Maybe they did not feel secure in their job or team environment to tell the regular customer that Buffalo Wild Wings is an inclusive company that welcomes all people.

As a result, Buffalo Wild Wings might face possible lawsuits, loss of business, wrongful employee termination lawsuits, and a negative impact on its corporate brand. Their stature, as a welcoming member of the Chicago community, has been harmed, and the lives of countless employees, customers, and community members have been impacted. The cost of this incident in time, training, lost sales, and brand impact is immeasurable.

How can organizations, especially ones with large, complex, and distributed workforces, ensure that incidents like this do not happen?

  • First, be very clear about the values of the organization. It’s not enough to have a mission, vision, and values – you need to communicate them effectively throughout each layer of the organization and work together to understand them, evaluate and improve them when needed, and live them every day.
  • Second, provide managers with the training and support they need to create high-performing teams, including coaching in psychological safety, leadership, and emotional intelligence.
  • Third, give your employees the tools they need to be successful, including ways to offer feedback, identify concerns, and report incidents. Make it clear that employees will never be fired or reprimanded for standing by company policies, and if they feel they have been, they have a well-defined way to report that concern (and have it investigated and responded to promptly).
  • And finally, make it clear to employees that racism will never be tolerated, even if it means the company loses a loyal customer.