For the past few years, everybody seems to have been talking about psychological safety. It gets mentioned in just about every meeting I attend and is certainly a topic in every team coaching assignment I undertake.
Everyone agrees it’s important.
But strangely, in my experience, it’s very rare for leaders to get excited about psychological safety.
Why is this?
My hunch is that it’s become one of those concepts that have remained, well, very conceptual.
I think generally there’s a sketchy understanding of what psychological safety really is and why it’s so important.
When pushed, leaders and team members usually talk about psychological safety as the freedom to be oneself at work, without fear of judgement, punishment or embarrassment.
That’s part of it. It makes sense that it’s a ‘thing’, but most teams quickly conclude that it’s not an issue for them.
There’s something about the obvious and straightforward that leads us to assume we’re already doing it when in reality it’s the important basics that are often overlooked.
These days, I go straight to Amy Edmondson’s definition of psychological safety:
“A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
That idea of risk tends to focus the mind. It makes for a much harder-edged conversation. Not ‘Is everyone comfortable being themselves?’
‘Do the members of this team feel able to take interpersonal risks to achieve the results of the team?’
We might then talk about what an absence of psychological safety looks like.
That’s a team where everyone plays safe. Where potentially helpful feedback is sat on, in case it gets taken the wrong way. Where discussion is polite, passion is stifled, action is nodded through and passive-aggressive complaints seem normal. Where learning and improvement are often slow or limited. Where people withhold the earliest beginnings of an idea for fear of looking dumb. Where innovation is rare. Where fear causes mistakes to be hidden. These are teams that feel stuck.
There are also very real consequences for teams like this.
Playing safe never leads to excellence. If the team is operating in a fast-paced, rapidly changing context where agility and innovation are necessary to thrive, a lack of psychological safety will very likely prove terminal.
Fostering psychological safety can set a team apart. It’s about creating an environment that encourages the right balance of candour and vulnerability – in pursuit of improved performance.
It’s not something that occurs naturally and it’s not easy to develop. Creating and sustaining psychological safety requires intention and effort.
Here are 10 things you can start doing now to build psychological safety in your team:
- Model humility and curiosity in your work. It’s impossible for a leader to have all the answers. Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know, what do you think?”
- Lead the way by sharing your emotions and vulnerability. This might simply be a matter of saying what you feel. If something has made you angry, say you’re angry; if you’re proud, say you’re proud. If you’re struggling with something, let your team know. Show that it’s ok to ask for help.
- Make feedback amongst team members a normal part of how you do things. As team leader, go first and ask for critical feedback. Discuss how this is going with the team and what will make it easier. Introduce formal processes, such as After-Action Reviews, Retrospectives or Red Teams to make feedback more normal.
- Regularly discuss standards and failure. Ensure everyone is clear about the risk of failure upfront. Be clear where potential failure is related to skills and train or support as necessary. Clarify that failure as a result of sloppiness or not following agreed processes will not be accepted, but acknowledge that things will go wrong as a result of unforeseen complexity or trying to do something for the first time. Ensure every setback is reviewed and learned from.
- Collectively develop a “Team Agreement” or set of behavioural norms for the team, ensuring it contains guidelines for team discussions and how conflict and disagreement will be managed.
- Help each of the team find a balance between authenticity in how they express themselves on topics that are important to them and responsibility for the impact this has on other team members and the team’s agenda. Introduce the idea of Social Sensitivity as a potential team asset.
- Increase the extent to which the team is aware of how it listens. Encourage the team to call out each other’s interruptions. Challenge everyone on the team to ensure all views are heard.
- Publicly recognise when someone is providing or asking for feedback or otherwise engaging in a way that involves interpersonal risk.
- Conversely, be consistently firm on behaviours that inhibit psychological safety.
- Keep psychological safety on the agenda. Regularly discuss how psychologically safe the team is, listen to experiences of team members and agree collective actions to improve psychological safety