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How To Create Psychological Safety At Work

How To Create Psychological Safety At Work

First, a question.

What makes a great team?

Ask a thousand people and you’ll get a thousand answers and the truth is that because every team is made up of such unique dynamics, there’s no single answer that everyone can be happy with. But one interesting answer that came out of a two-year study by Google called Project Oxygen was what doesn’t make a great team…

It wasn’t those with high IQs, it wasn’t those with the most senior people and it wasn’t those that made the smallest number of mistakes.

While we’ve been writing a lot on what makes a good team, Google commissioned Project Aristotle and based on their findings, they created a list of the five key dynamics that make teams successful.

At the top of the list is psychological safety.

You make be excused for thinking it’s just another phrase made up by ‘business consultants’ to justify their own existences and to charge corporates £3,000 a day for the privilege but in this case, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

So What Is Psychological Safety?

The term was coined in 1999 by professor Amy Edmondson, the highly esteemed Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, and she defined it thus:

‘Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’

You can watch her TEDx Talk here and if you are so inclined, you can read a 4,500-word transcript of her HBR IdeaCast conversation with Harvard Business School’s Curt Nickisch here.

Since she identified the concept of psychological safety, she has spent time observing how businesses of all sizes and complexities that have a trusting workplace consistently outperform those that don’t.

‘Psychological safety isn’t about being nice’, she says. ‘It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.’ And she argues that kind of organisational culture is increasingly important in the modern economy.

And she’s right.

To give you a bit of context, in the early 1990s, Amy Edmondson was a first-year PhD student and part of her research for her doctorate was to investigate whether high-performing medical teams made more or fewer mistakes than low-performing teams.

To conduct her research, she collected survey data to indicate whether teams were high-performing or low-performing, and then compared that data to statistics on which teams made the most mistakes.

When she compared the data, she noticed something puzzling: the highest-performing teams weren’t make the fewest mistakes, they were making the most. How is that possible?

Surely, if you’re not making many mistakes you’re doing better than those who are, right?

Wrong.

Here’s an example scenario:

Stephen is a manager at a big corporation who’s been there a decade and is known for his technical expertise. For two years he’s managed a team of 15 people on one of the corporation’s biggest and most complex projects. He upholds high standards but over the last few months, he’s been increasingly intolerant of mistakes, increasingly intolerant of ideas he considers to be ‘under par’ and can’t abide anyone challenging his way of thinking.

Last month, he publicly trounced an idea offered up by one of his most experienced team members and when the team member in question was out of the room, Stephen wiped the floor with him to the rest of the team (who, incidentally, thought that the idea was well-researched and worth exploring).

Since Stephen’s public shaming of his team member, not a single idea has been offered by any other members of the team, obviously fearing the same treatment.

The upshot of the whole affair was that the executive board have rejected Stephen’s project on the basis that it lacked creativity and innovation.

Let’s give you that quote from Amy Edmondson again:

‘Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’

He was both punished and humiliated for speaking up. He wasn’t psychologically safe. eHe

Jim Barnet, CEO of leadership development company Glint says that ‘the fight-or-flight responses resulting from this stress compromise higher brain functions, and negative emotions overwhelm us so we lose perspective and the ability to reason effectively. A team member’s confidence to try new things takes a serious knocking.’

How Do You Create a Culture of Psychological Safety At Work?

The thing about psychological safety is that much of it comes down to basic common sense and here are seven ways in which you can generate the culture you want. If you can’t do them all at once, start with one and work your way down the list.

Small tweaks can create a ripple effect for seismic changes to happen, you just have to know how…

1. Break The Golden Rule. The golden rule is ‘treat others how you’d like to be treated’ but where psychological safety is concerned, the opposite is true. Treat others how they’d like to be treated. Ask your team what they’d prefer in terms of frequency of check-ins, their preferred style of communication and feedback etc.

A good leader shouldn’t operate from the standpoint of what he or she wants, the default position should always be ‘what do they want and need to be successful.’

2. Welcome Curiosity. The travel and tour company G Adventures have actively sought to welcome curiosity. ‘We want to nurture a curiosity culture because it makes us more present to the journey, more creative, better at communicating alignment with each other, and more agile and adaptive to what’s happening when we arrive at an obstacle on the road. Not to mention more engaged.’

3. Promote Healthy Conflict. There will always be conflict in the workplace but we should strive to create conditions for the healthiest form of conflict.

According to Henry Evans and Colm Foster, co-authors of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments that Matter, asking questions in a certain way allows others to feel that you respect them and are debating their ideas rather than judging them because of their ideas. Doing so promotes healthy conflict, and others will not hesitate to bring you even those seemingly crazy, leftfield ideas that can often prove to be invaluable.

4. Give Staff A Voice. Excessive, unnecessary rules that limit or restrict communication is to the detriment of psychological safety. Instead, the creation of liberal pathways to leadership, effective feedback channels and the encouragement of free communication is the way forward.

5. Earn And Extend Trust. As you will have read in our last blog No Trust, No Team, psychological safety is inherently linked to trust. Amy Edmondson’s research describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

Google’s Project Aristotle identified trust as a vital requirement in the creation of a coherent, productive team but it’s not enough to acknowledge that trust is critical, it must be built up and earned, and then maintained.

6. Promote Effectiveness, Not Efficiency. This is a bit of a misnomer in that good teams are inherently efficient, but there’s other factors that come into play. In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek discusses the vital role that leaders play to create a psychological safe environment. People aren’t simply a means to an end in measuring effective or efficient metrics.

He says ‘By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization, leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organisation from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities.’

7. Think Differently About Creativity. For this one, it’s worth looking at one of the most creative companies there is. Ed Catmull, the former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios decided upon an unconventional approach to creativity to solidify psychological safety. Counter to instinct, the company has built a culture around taking risks, where all ideas are encouraged and unpredictable paths are embraced.

In essence, it’s about ensuring everyone feels comfortable sharing incomplete work and then learning and feeling inspired by developing the ideas together. This creative process is based on trust and openness where teams can be vulnerable without penalty.

This type of approach may initially make teams feel uncomfortable and disrupt the status quo somewhat but at Pixar at least, the dynamic has proved to be a success. Have you seen the Toy Story franchise!

Dr. Marla Gottschalk, an Industrial & Organisational Psychologist has delved a little deeper into Pixar’s strategies and you can read her work here.

Conclusion

Psychological safety is all about providing a safe space for teams to be able to express themselves fully without fear or ridicule, penalty or admonishment. Once the conditions are present for this to happen, employee buy-in, engagement and an increasingly positive workplace culture will happen, but it requires effort and a genuine desire to make it work for all.

We can leave the last word to an extract from an article in the New York Times Magazine on Google’s quest for the perfect team:

‘No-one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe,” we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.’

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