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Harrell shares key ingredients to healthy organizations during Women in Leadership Seminar Series

Headshot of Taylor Harrell. She's wearing a black shirt and standing in an outside setting. (Courtesy photo)
Taylor Harrell, PhD, presented “The Key Ingredients to High Performance.” (Courtesy photo)

Taylor Harrell, PhD, award-winning researcher, consultant, and coach in organizational leadership presented a virtual session titled “The Key Ingredients to High Performance” as part of the UTHealth Houston Women in Leadership Seminar Series on Thursday, Feb. 23.

Harrell is an expert on psychological safety, high-performance teams, and organizational transformation, as well as a certified master trainer in the Fearless Organization Scan, the gold-standard psychological safety assessment. She also is part of the founding team that launched psychological safety assessment certification programs across North America.

In light of the pandemic, Harrell began her presentation by stressing the willingness to expect the unexpected.

“Change is absolutely inevitable and change is at the heart of leadership,” Harrell said. “When you think about the definition of leadership it’s about influencing others and mobilizing others to reach a common goal and a shared purpose. It’s about getting from here to there. In order to do that, we can’t expect that things will be the same on the other side. The last three years have been nothing but change.”

Harrell has spent the past couple of years helping leaders navigate an ever-changing work environment. While people are still reverberating from the impacts of COVID-19, Harrell said the U.S. Department of Labor predicts health care employment positions will grow by 13% between 2022 and 2031. This growth will have an impact when it comes to training new employees and creating a leadership pipeline.  

Harrell stressed that the message in the near present is simple: Take care of and grow our people.

“People make up teams and people make up organizations,” Harrell said. “If we want to take care of our patients and the patients’ outcomes, we have to take care of our people first.”   

It’s vital to have psychological safety in the work environment. To create quality teamwork, which transforms health care organizations into innovative and inclusive workplaces that create top-notch patient outcomes, Harrell said.

“It’s the belief that one can speak up about ideas, issues, or mistakes without fear of punishment or rejection,” Harrell said. “Psychological safety and our beliefs about psychological safety are tested every time we encounter threats, either real or perceived. Psychological safety begins in our nervous system and translates into our behaviors. Those behaviors then impact how we show up and have real consequences down the line.”

These fears can sometimes lead to employees choosing not to speak up when they know their contributions could make a positive difference, whether it be out of fear of rejection or because their voices won’t be heard. All of these worries are summed up in two words: impression management.

“Impression management is the driving mechanism that keeps us from not speaking up in the workplace,” Harrell said. “From a young age, we learn that if we act in certain ways, people will in turn act certain ways. If we behave in a way that people respond more favorably to we learn ‘That’s what they want me to do to be accepted.’ It’s like a muscle, and the more we work that muscle, the better we get at it. By the time we’re adults it’s second nature. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s just something we’re used to doing.”

This leads to filtering and overmanaging one’s self because of fear of rejection or being discounted, so that the fear becomes a core driving force for all behaviors –unless an environment is created where everyone feels safe. 

Harrell laid out four different types of psychological safety that are common in the workplace:

  • Inclusion safety: The feeling that your immediate team accepts you as a valued member.
  • Learner safety: People feel like they can ask questions, not specific for only new employees.
  • Contributor safety: The ability to share ideas and have open feedback. There is no fear of dead silence or believing that things should be done a certain way just because that’s how it’s always been.
  • Challenger safety: Having the ability to challenge ideas with different perspectives with coworkers of higher authority. This is often the scariest due to perceived risk.

“When you have psychological safety, it’s more likely your organization will succeed,” Harrell said. “It’s not a nice-to-have, it is a must-have if you want your team to be successful. It helps prevent errors, fuels innovation, and fosters inclusion.”

Data shows diverse teams actually underperform in comparison to more homogeneous teams, except when psychological safety is present, Harrell said.

“We think of ourselves as women, even just this one dimension of gender, it becomes so much more important to create psychological safety in order to bring out all the potential that our diversity can bring forward,” Harrell said.

When psychological safety is lacking, common workplace characteristics include:

  • Workers tend to only hear good news and not all the news.
  • Conversations happen before or after the meeting, not during the meeting.
  • Anonymous surveys are the only way to get feedback.
  • When things go wrong, people blame others instead of taking responsibility.

Ways to drive psychological safety in health care settings:

  • Leader inclusiveness
  • Strong relationships with colleagues
  • Supportive organizational practices

Harrell concluded with a parting message for fellow leaders in pursuit of a path forward.

“As a leader, people are always looking to you to set the tone,” Harrell said. “They’re looking at you to see what’s appropriate and what’s acceptable. If you’re able to show up in a humble way that says, ‘I don’t have all the answers but I need everyone’s input and we’re stronger together as a team,’ and you’re also willing to show the courage and the vulnerability that it takes to say that and to hear difficult feedback and to create openness – then I promise you the cultures of your teams and organizations will transform.”

The Women in Leadership Seminar Series, now in its seventh year, is sponsored by the university administration through Human Resources Organizational and Talent Development in collaboration with the Office of Faculty Affairs and Development.

The series creates an environment for employees to learn about the experiences, challenges, and achievements of women in leadership. Open to all UTHealth Houston faculty, staff, and students of any gender, participants gain leadership insights and techniques while also connecting with colleagues from across the institution.

The next Women in Leadership Seminar Series is set for March 30. For additional information, visit Questions can be directed to or 713-500-3169.

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