A definition of psychological safety
Psychological Safety is the belief that we can speak our mind without negative consequences. We can offer our ideas, ask questions, raise concerns,
communicate mistakes and speak truth to power, without being sanctioned, punished or humiliated.
What psychological safety looks like
When a team or organisation has psychological safety, we would see;
• Respectful debate and conflict resolution
• Emphasis on alignment (one-voice) over consensus (everyone agrees)
• Curious questions, ideas, perspectives, challenge and feedback being valued
• Experimentation and learning from mistakes
• Low emphasis on hierarchical power and direction, high emphasis on individual accountability
• Purpose and objectives driving contribution, collaboration and performance
• Lots of challenges and development opportunities for people
Why psychological safety matters
The outcomes for leaders and teams when there is psychological safety are;
• Early warnings of issues, mistakes and problems, so that they can be contained and managed back on track more quickly
• Innovation and creativity. This stems from people feeling they can offer diverse ideas and opinions, challenge the status quo and experiment
• Fast learning resulting from candid conversations about both success and failures, without blame or people taking credit for team outcomes
• Talent diversity is likely as talented people, with diverse ideas and ways of thinking feel welcome and valued
• Growth in individual contributions as collaboration is supported and people do not “hold-back” for fear of getting it wrong
• Resilience to change is enhanced as trust reduces fear, and candid communication creates more certainty
• Higher personal accountability, meaning managers can lead rather than micro-manage.
The neuroscience of safety
Our monkey brains do not help us to grow psychological safety; we are hard-wired to respond to perceived threats, and to protect ourselves and our status from them. So we;
• Agree with people in power/ high status
• Divert and blame others/circumstances for mistakes
• Make excuses
• Play not to lose, rather than to win
So, to grow psychological safety, requires us to choose it, to be purposeful. We have to first commit to grow it in our own team and model it to the organisation.
Growing psychological safety
Psychological Safety is like a collective version of trust that exists between individuals. Growing it requires conviction and commitment from the boss; it can’t be optional.
It starts with recognising the behavioural symptoms that indicate a lack of safety, and then choosing practical steps to stimulate change. How you behave as a leader, what you model to your people, has the most profound impact. So, you must align your words with your deeds.
Recognise the behavioural symptoms of a lack of safety
There are many ways to assess the level of safety in an organisation or team. However, simple observation of behaviours is free and accessible to all managers. Here are some symptoms you may observe that are clues to how things are;
• Employees don’t ask many questions during meetings.
• Employees don’t feel comfortable owning up to mistakes or place blame on others when mistakes are made.
• People avoid difficult conversations and hot-button topics.
• Senior people and Managers tend to dominate meeting discussions.
• Feedback is not frequently given or requested.
• Employees don’t often venture outside of their job descriptions to support other teammates.
• Employees don’t ask one another for help when they need it.
• There are hardly any disagreements or differing points of view.
• Employees don’t know one another personally, just professionally.
Some practical ideas to increase safety in your team
- Employees don’t ask many questions during meetings;
o Allow 2/3 minutes of reflection time before opening up for questions
o Split the group into pairs or small groups and allow 5/10 minutes for them to discuss what’s been tabled and come back with their collective questions. Go round taking one question from each group’s list until they are all answered
o Ask people to put their questions on post-its
o Don’t force it, but do show appreciation to people who ask questions “thank you for getting clarification for the whole team”, “that was an important question to answer, thank you”
- Employees don’t feel comfortable owning up to mistakes or place blame on others when mistakes are made;
o Deal with genuine mistakes calmly and supportively and give people the opportunity to fix them
o When you observe the behaviour, coach. “Others may well have contributed to this, tell me what your role was in this mistake?”, “Accepting that the situation is as it is, what will you do to get back on track?”, “If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?”
o Acknowledge historical culture. “At times in the past, we have had a blame culture here that makes people afraid to own their mistakes. I want that to change because everyone makes mistakes sometimes. What can we learn from this?”
- People avoid difficult conversations and hot-button topics;
o Call it. “I’ve noticed no-one has mentioned X”, “What are we avoiding in this conversation?”
o Invite it. “It’s natural for us not to want to face difficult issues, but we will have to if we want to succeed. Let’s go round the room/ post-it on the topics we each feel we are avoiding
o If it’s an individual, take it off-line and use one of the feedback or difficult conversation techniques
- Senior people and Managers tend to dominate meeting discussions;
o Change the process. Use listening circles and break-out paired/ small-groups discussions with report back
o Invite people in. Allow some reflection time before asking for input from everyone. Specifically ask people who haven’t contributed whether they have something additional to offer.
o Address people as listeners. “You have been listening carefully while the rest of us are talking. What do you think is good/ risky about what’s being proposed/ what can you see that we might be missing?
- Feedback is not frequently given or requested;
o Model it. Ask for feedback at every opportunity and then accept it without defensiveness. “Thank you, it’s helpful to know how other perceive me”
o Ask in 1:1s. “On a scale of 1-10, how well am I leading you and what would get me closer to ten?”, “What do I do that support/ gets in the way of your contribution?”
o Use the self-feedback and feedforward techniques.
- Employees don’t often venture outside of their job descriptions to support other teammates;
o Set it as a team expectation
o Talk-about it. Someone reports in a team meeting that they are falling behind or struggling, ask “what could anyone else do to help X?”
o Show appreciation when they do
- Employees don’t ask one another for help when they need it;
o Set it as a team expectation
o Talk-about it. Someone reports in a team meeting or 1:1 that they are falling behind, struggling or stuck ask “who else could help you with this?”
o Encourage when they when they do “Well done for not just struggling on. Asking for help means we can still do this”
- There are hardly any disagreements or differing points of view;
o Set it as a team expectation and a positive (but done with respect)
o Create a process around it that depersonalises it (e.g. listening circles)
o Challenge disagreements that are played out as personal. “that’s just stupid”, “you don’t know what you’re talking about”
- Employees don’t know one another personally, just professionally;
o Run a personality types (MBTI/) workshop
o Use Lifeline Story-telling or Snapshot of Me exercises and have one person present each month
o Have lunch/ coffee together (even if virtually) once a month with no agenda
If you would like to know more about how leaders can grow psychological safety, do get in touch.
Ref: The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson