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Psychological safety – What is it and how can I introduce it into my workplace?

We have all worked in both good and bad teams throughout our career and heard stories from others about “how great their boss/team is”, or “how dreadful it is to work at…” and in my experience I have experienced both extremes within the same organisation. How is this possible? Surely workplace culture is a linked directly to an organisation as a whole right?... Wrong.

An organisation may have an aspirational workplace culture, however it’s rarely seen throughout the workforce and it’s more often seen in pockets or teams within an organisation. Why is this?

In 2012 Google conducted a study titled “Project Aristotle” a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts". The objective was to answer the question “What makes a team effective at Google?”. (Follow the link for more details on the project).

Using input from executives across the globe, the research team identified 180 teams to study (115 project teams in engineering and 65 pods in sales) which included a mix of high- and low-performing teams.

After conducting various tests around the teams dynamics and effectiveness, the researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. In order of importance:

  1. Psychological safety - A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

  2. Dependability - On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time

  3. Structure and clarity - An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations

  4. Meaning - Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness.

  5. Impact - The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams.

In this article, I want to concentrate on the most important aspect in creating an effective team, Psychological safety.

What is Psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a term that has being discussed and recognised far more in recent years with employers and employees wanting to create workplaces that are safe, inclusive and allow their teams to be the best versions of themselves.

Amy Edmondson has extensively researched this topic and provides this simplistic definition of the term “Psychological safety”:

“A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Amy Edmondson

Some of the benefits associated with Psychological safety in a healthy workplace include;

  • Enhanced employee engagement

  • Inclusive culture

  • Improved creativity

  • Greater collaboration

  • Better employee health and well-being

What does psychological safety at work look like? A few days ago, a client asked me for some examples of what psychological safety looks like at work, and we explored some areas included in this list below. Feel free to use this as a checklist for your workplace. 1️. If you make a mistake at work, it is not held against you. Instead, this is seen as an opportunity to learn. 2️. You and others feel comfortable raising concerns or problems without fear of any negative experience in return. 3️. Taking measured risks is accepted. 4️. Team members feel comfortable discussing difficult topics with others that they do not fully understand. 5️. People are accepted for being different. 6️. Asking for help from other team members is completely normal. 7️. Everyone feels as though their unique skills and experience are valued. 8️. No one team member would purposely undermine or shame another member of the team. 9️. Praise is routinely awarded between colleagues.

How can we create psychological safety in our workplace?

Firstly, we need to recognise that this isn’t something that is only created from the top down, this is something that leaders and managers can create in teams at all levels in the organisation. Don’t wait for your boss or your bosses’ boss to tell you to do this.

I have put together an action list for leaders/managers so you can start creating a better workplace environment now. This list is blended from the outcome of the Aristotle project and my own experience.

Show that you are engaged with your team members

When team members need your attention, provide it. Close the laptop down and make space for them. This includes providing the right environment for the topic of their conversation. If it’s a concern, find a private space to discuss.

Ask questions of your team and be open to learn from them. This shows a real openness to learn from your team members and empowers them to step up with solutions. This improves collaboration and encourages creativity.

Respond to your team members verbally rather than by email or text message. All too often the tone of messages can be mistaken depending on individual mindset. One to one verbal discussion is so much better because you can use the whole variety of tone, expression, and body language to display your message.

Make eye contact with them. When people make eye contact with us, we feel like we matter, and that the other person is engaging directly with us.

Show that you understand

Recap and confirm that you understand what the other person has been saying and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. The difficult questions often help improve understanding.

Show empathy toward the other person by way of saying “I understand this must be difficult” or “I hear what you are saying”.

Look for ways you can resolve the matter together. Always ask them for their solution first. Ask things like “how can we make this better” or “What can we do to…”

Consider your body language when communicating. Be open and welcoming, avoid crossing your arms, rolling your eyes and of course… yawning! Where appropriate, occasionally nodding your head shows understanding and an exaggerated nod further displays agreement.

Be inclusive during interpersonal situations

Be available for your team members when they need you. Equally, check in with them regularly. This helps build rapport. As your relationship develops, take the time to get to know them a bit more personally. Don’t be tempted to just straight in with this though, it’s a gradual thing.

If there is a need for an ad-hoc meeting, make sure everyone is fully aware of the reasons for this. Communication needs to be clear and concise. If you are looking for tips on how to improve your communication skills, I would suggest “The first minute” by Chris Fenning.

Don’t allow negativity to grow on your team. Instead question why someone has said something negative to see if you can understand where their frustration is coming from. If negative topics are around matters out of your control, steer the conversation towards matters you can all control.

Make sure everyone know you appreciate their input and involvement. Remember that everyone has their own skills and experience to bring to the team and as a collective the team is much stronger.

Challenge any inhouse disputes. Disputes left unchecked rarely resolve themselves and often lead to further and greater problems.

When talking to a group or a team, make sure your body language includes everyone. i.e don’t stand with your back to one person while you brief the rest of the team. This shows that you are actively trying to involve everyone.

Be inclusive in decision making

Don’t interrupt or allow interruptions (e.g., step in when someone is interrupted and ensure his/her idea is heard).

Be the last to speak when it comes to deciding or planning. This is a great way of gathering other peoples unbiased opinions before you conclude on a decision, and when you do decide on a plan, explain why you made it.

Make sure you acknowledge team members for their input, Failure to do so could leave them feeling excluded or that their input wasn’t wanted meaning they may be less likely to provide valuable input next time you ask.

Show confidence and conviction without appearing to be inflexible

Manage team discussions effectively and keep them on topic (e.g., don't allow side conversations in team meetings, make sure conflict isn’t personal).

Ask for other views and opinions and take your time to process what you are hearing. Then be decisive in your decisions once you have all the information.

Show the team that you are there to support them. Remember, when you are in a leadership position, your team don’t work for you, you work for them! Follow this simple rule and your team will be more inclined to genuinely want to help you in return.

Encourage creativity and risk taking from others.

Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerable side in front of your team. It shows them that it’s ok to fail or struggle from time to time. It also makes them feel safer showing their vulnerability too.

To conclude, the one bit of advice I’d offer above all is this… Remember, your team don’t work for you, you work for them. Follow this principle and support your team, you are half way there to creating psychological safety in your workplace and displaying great leadership.

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