Want to Build Psychological Safety at Work? You go first.
Self-mastery

It was National Inclusion Week, last week.  And as we know it’s one of the four dimensions in which psychological safety at work is perceived by others.  So I thought it was a perfect opportunity to have a chinwag with my good friend and colleague Scott Chambers in the latest episode of GOBO. 

Much of what we discussed really made me rethink the challenges and opportunities that exist for leaders wanting to promote and nurture a psychological safe environment in their team.  This article picks up on much of our conversation.

I was really taken aback at the start of our conversation when Scott related he had attended the most recent CIPD conference and was surprised at how few people said they really knew what psychological safety is.

I thought it was well understood.  Certainly, I hear those two words bandied around a lot, but it seems there is a mix of responses.  Some people are confused, others don’t like the words themselves and others feel it’s a load of mumbo-jumbo “HR speak”.  It wouldn’t surprise me if some business leaders felt it was a pseudo-science or merely another way of molly-coddling employees.

But creating a psychologically safe environment is not just a trendy notion; the research seems pretty clear.  It’s a fundamental necessity for fostering collaboration, innovation, and overall team success. Like most things in life, however, while the idea of it might make sense, it can be tricky to create this essential workplace atmosphere and team leaders can face a number of challenges.

Defining Psychological Safety

Psychological safety in essence is the shared belief within a team that one can express their thoughts, ideas, concerns, or take calculated risks without fear of punishment, humiliation, or rejection. It’s about creating a culture where open and honest communication is not only encouraged but also celebrated. 

But straight away we are faced with a contradiction.  Understanding the benefit of psychological safety is not the same as creating a psychologically safe team environment. Google’s Aristotle project to discover what builds the perfect team indicated very clearly that while there seems to be a number of other important behaviours, psychological safety, more than anything else, is critical to team high performance.  The challenge, therefore, must lie elsewhere.

Benefits of Psychological Safety

Before we delve into the challenges and practical solutions, let’s examine why psychological safety is worth the effort.

At a basic level for individual team members, it enhances confidence.  When individuals feel safe to express themselves, they gain confidence in their abilities and contributions. It also increased creativity.  A safe environment encourages out-of-the-box thinking and innovative problem-solving. At the same time, it promotes better mental well-being, reducing anxiety and stress levels leading to a healthier, more productive workforce.

For teams, a psychologically safe environment promotes greater collaboration.  Team members collaborate more effectively when they feel free to share their opinions and ideas without hesitation.  A psychologically safe team harnesses their collective intelligence and diverse perspectives, enhancing their ability to solve complex issues.  And the sheer ability to discuss openly diverging views without fear or favour means people feel heard and their ideas included. This has the tendency of amplifying engagement. Engaged team members are more committed, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction.

Organisations that prioritise psychological safety witness more innovative solutions and a faster pace of adaptation.  Along with increased engagement, they also see lower turnover rates because team members feel valued, respected, and satisfied with their work environment.  From a talent acquisition point of view, organisations known for fostering psychological safety also become magnets for top talent.

What Team Leaders can actually do

Of course, as I’ve said, creating an environment felt to be psychologically safe for its members doesn’t just happen because it’s willed by the team leader.  Interpersonal trust and demonstrating vulnerability are keys to opening the door to psychological safety in a team.

While some team leaders might feel that vulnerability can be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness and hesitate to share their own uncertainties or mistakes, it actually has the contrary effect.  Role modelling vulnerability has at minimum two positive effects.  Sharing experiences and mistakes demonstrates that fallibility is human. It demonstrates authenticity and encourages others in the team to share their uncertainties, fears and mistakes.  It creates a no-blame climate.

Some team leaders may be uncomfortable in confronting challenging conversations or potential conflict in the team, but developing their communication skills, specifically in providing feedback and managing conflicts is crucial to a psychologically safe environment where tensions or unacceptable behaviour can be addressed without recriminations.

Recognising the cultural diversity and fostering inclusivity of the team is also important. Backgrounds and cultural norms and natural biases can also be challenging for leaders wanting to nurture psychological safety in the team.  In geographical dispersed teams this can be made even more challenging where English is not their first language and perhaps team members do not feel they have the tools in terms of vocabulary and idioms or shared educational backgrounds to feel psychologically safe.

In these circumstances, listening attentively to team members and gently encouraging the expression of ideas and feelings makes a big difference.  Team leaders can demonstrate empathy and make a point of soliciting differing views, enabling them to feel heard and valued; encouraging open conversations and providing space for everyone to speak.  This is a celebration and leverage of diversity in the team, recognising different perspectives as assets not obstacles to psychological safety.

Promoting and encouraging calculated risk-taking is another approach that nurtures psychological safety.  Creating an environment where calculated risks are valued as learning opportunities enhances innovation.  Leaders who want to totally eliminate risks unintentionally create ‘comfort zones’ which diminish learning and reproduce the same old operational patterns.  Leaders who want to be right all the time contribute to this diminishing of learning.  Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has expressed a desire to change the organisation from being a ‘Know it all’ to a ‘Learn it all’ environment.  This means experimentation and failure tolerance.

Auditing the psychological safety of the team

A team leader can do several things to be the catalyst of psychological safety in the team, as outlined above, but perhaps a good starting point is considering seven elements that can give an insight into the current state in the team.

  • When a mistake is made by a member of the team, is it held against them?
  • Are team members genuinely able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  • Do team members reject others from time to time for being different?
  • How safe is it for team members to take risks?
  • How easy is it for team members to ask each other for help?
  • Do team members deliberately act to undermine anyone’s efforts?
  • Are the unique skills and talents of team members valued and utilised?

Doubts or uncertainty in any number of these areas would question the level of psychological safety experienced in the team.  To be certain, team leaders can have the team respond to these questions and start painting a picture of how they perceive the team environment.

Engaging in non-judgmental conversations and exploring how team members perceive each of these elements with the intention of having open dialogue can begin to sow the seeds of psychological safety in the team.  Nevertheless, however you look at it, the team leader has to take the lead in taking the first steps to creating a trusting and psychologically safe environment.

In the practical world of team leadership, fostering psychological safety is not an optional extra; it’s a strategic imperative. Team leaders should lead by example, demonstrating vulnerability, active listening, and an open-minded approach to diversity. This sets the stage for a workplace where team members feel safe to speak their minds, take risks, and, most importantly, flourish.  By understanding the benefits of psychological safety for individuals and the team as a whole, and by addressing the challenges head-on with practical solutions, team leaders can pave the way for a more collaborative, innovative, and engaged workforce, enabling teams to thrive and prosper.

At Performance Equations, my colleagues and I specialise in helping you build the kind of organisational culture that your people and customers love; drawing out talents, amplifying engagement and boosting productivity. How can we help you?

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