We all know the importance of keeping our teams physically safe – including safety from bodily harm and harm from health threats like COVID-19. It is also important for our success to keep our teams psychologically safe! What is psychological safety? Amy Edmondson from Harvard University is considered the world’s leading expert on psychological safety. She describes psychological safety as a “climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. People feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up safely ... they know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues.”
Research has shown many benefits of psychologically safe work environments, including:
• Mistakes are reported quickly so that prompt corrective action can be taken
• Seamless coordination across groups or departments is enabled
• Potentially game changing ideas are shared
• Drives higher engagement, collaboration, conflict resolution, and participation
• Makes it easier to include the voice of sometimes quiet members such as women, introverts, and minorities
Bottom line: psychological safety is the foundation of high performing teams! It creates a space where people feel secure and safe to speak up, be themselves, and experiment.
Psychological Safety Survey
So, how psychologically safe is your team right now? One tool to evaluate is to use the survey below, which consists of seven questions that Edmondson suggests asking our team members. Ask your team for candid responses based on their recent experiences. We can request simple “Yes” or “No” responses, which would be acceptable. To get a finer calibration of responses, I recommend using a five-point scale (e.g. 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Neither Agree or Disagree, 4 = Agree, 5 = Strongly Agree).
1) If you make a mistake on this team, is it often held against you?
2) Are members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
3) Do people on this team sometimes reject others for thinking differently?
4) Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
5) Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
6) Would anyone on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
7) When working with this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?
Follow-up is important. In keeping with the spirit of psychological safety, it is important to summarize the results of the survey and discuss with our team. We can collectively highlight and capitalize on the perceived strengths of the team. And we can single out the weakest areas, and participatively work with the team to make improvements. Follow-up builds trust, earns respect, and will help our team take future surveys seriously because they know they will be acted on.
Keys to Build Psychological Safety
What can we do to build a higher level of psychological safety? Following are some ideas to consider:
1) Measure Psychological Safety. We can explain and then implement the preceding survey in order to get an assessment of the starting place with our team(s).
2) Hold a team retrospective. Once we have the survey results analyzed, we can discuss with our team. We can also discuss some of the following key components below and show our personal commitment to having a safe workplace. It is important for us as leaders to set the tone and be a positive example of openness, transparency, and collaboration.
3) Be human. We are all part of the human family, and share universal needs such as appreciation, respect, grace, social status, and happiness. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors. Paul Santagata, an executive at Google, has developed a useful tool called “Just Like Me.” The idea is to reflect that other people we interact with are just like me in a number of ways, such as:
• This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
• This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
• This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
• This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
• This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
4) Establish adult rules and norms. Most companies say they trust their employees, but then their rules often show the opposite. Psychological safety is encouraging people to behave like adults; to address things openly, with respect and candor. Corporate and team rules should promote that same behavior. Trust is not built with words, but with actions. Some companies are now offering an unlimited vacation policy, while others have streamlined the approval process for expense reports. We may have limited opportunity to change corporate rules, but we can at least review and modify our team rules to show we trust our employees. Key point: when policies trust rather than control employees, people feel safe to bring their best selves to work.
5) Give employees a voice and encourage participation. A key component of psychological safety is to give all employees a voice, which includes encouraging people to challenge established practices that may not make sense. We want people to feel safe to speak candidly and honestly, which will prevent the problems that come from group think. One practice to consider is conversational turn-taking, where each team member has a turn to speak up. Managers and loud people should go last, in order to not unduly influence or intimidate the rest.
6) Earn and extend trust. Edmondson connects trust to psychological safety: “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” We can earn trust by owning up to our mistakes, apologizing when appropriate, and being transparent and open about challenges we are facing.
7) Replace blame with curiosity. Mistakes and problems happen. Instead of blaming people, a better approach is to ask questions and work together to identify what happened and learn from the experience.
8) Promote healthy conflict. Healthy conflict exists when people feel safe to share ideas and their perspectives, and ideas are debated in a non-judgmental manner. We want to encourage people to candidly yet respectfully express their thoughts, with the end goal of ending up with thoroughly vetted decisions that maximize benefits to the team and our stakeholders.
9) Reinforce desired behaviors. We should encourage desired behaviors and reward them when we see them being practiced. We also need to address behaviors that sabotage psychological safety. This where putting on our coaching hat is valuable – helping people succeed by reinforcing positive behaviors and working with them to eliminate the negative.
10) Hold periodic check-ins. Building a psychologically safe workplace is not a one-time event. We need to stay diligent and be committed to the long-term. One tool to keep us and our team accountable, is to periodically have intentional check-ins with our teams and openly discuss how we are doing.
Here is a closing story supporting the importance of psychological safety. Google conducted an exhaustive five-year study called Project Aristotle, which was launched to explain the differences in performance among its 180 teams. Google was surprised that the top performing teams were not comprised of the members that were the smartest or holding the most impressive credentials – the primary key to the top performing teams was their level of psychological safety! This is truly a lesson for all of us to learn and live by.
Wes Friesen (MBA, EMCM, CMDSM, MCOM, MDC, OSPC, CCE, CBF, CBA, ICP, CMA, CFM, CM, APP, PHR, CTP) is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. He is also an award winning University Instructor and Speaker, and is the President of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management and team building training. He serves as the Industry Co-Chair of the Greater Portland PCC.
His book, Your Team Can Soar! has 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you — and your team — soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com (under Book) or an online retailer like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Wes can be contacted at email@example.com or at 971.806.0812.
This article originally appeared in the November/December, 2020 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.