Psychological Safety Defined

According to Amy Edmondson, psychological safety exists when a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect and members are comfortable being themselves. Such a culture of trust and respect encourages members to bring their full and authentic selves to the table every day without fear of being marginalized, humiliated or made to feel inadequate. They know that their opinions count and willingly share them. This then yields great dividends as it unleashes diversity, innovation, creativity and a sense of confidence.

Based on that definition, one might think that all organisations would be committed to securing psychological safety. It turns out that that is not the case. A 2017 study conducted by Gallup found that 30% of respondents strongly believe that their opinions do not count at work.

As with so many workplace issues, the problem is exacerbated by gender inequality and pandemic-related changes to how we work. According to a recent study published by Catalyst, nearly half of female business leaders face difficulties speaking up in virtual meetings, and 1 in 5 reported feeling overlooked or ignored during video meetings.

The Hard Evidence

Lest you be tempted to believe that psychological safety is a “nice to have” or a fad that you can ignore focusing instead on hardcore bottom-line issues, here’s a reality check from one of the biggest global commercial enterprises – namely Google.

About ten years ago, Google set out to research what it needed to do to build the perfect team. There were lots of hypotheses as they launched this research. They played around with team composition, combining different personalities etc. In doing so, they were able to establish a litany of variables that were not significantly connected with team effectiveness at Google. Such factors included:

  • Colocation of teammates (sitting together in the same office)
  • Consensus-driven decision making
  • Extroversion of team members
  • Individual performance of team members
  • Workload size
  • Seniority
  • Team size
  • Tenure

At the end of the day, the evidence was incontrovertible. Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. The findings didn’t end there. The Google researchers also found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety:

  • Are less likely to leave Google;
  • Are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates;
  • Bring in more revenue; and
  • Are rated as effective twice as often by executives.

How Do Leaders Make It Happen?

Of course, there isn’t a single simple answer to this question. However, I think that it is instructive to examine where Amy Edmondson and Symond’s Research have landed on this issue. They have each articulated separate three-point strategies excerpts of which I now share for your consideration.

Amy Edmondson

In her TEDx talk, Edmondson offers three simple things individual leaders can do to foster psychological safety on their teams:

Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. The third column in the following diagram illustrates what this looks like in practical terms.

Acknowledge your own fallibility. This can be particularly challenging for leaders. However, modeling the behaviour sets the stage for other members of the team to do the same.

Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

Symond’s Research

For its part, Symond’s Research (drawing heavily on Edmondson’s work) advocates the following:

Set the stage by establishing the terms of engagement and holding team members accountable for adhering to same. Specific examples of such terms of engagement include:

  • Making it clear that mistakes/errors are part and parcel of complexity and innovation
  • There is no expectation of infallibility
  • Emphasize the purpose of the work and be flexible on the how and what thereby creating space for innovation
  • Make it abundantly clear that there is zero tolerance for denigrating other team members

Invite engagement – having set the stage, the leader should then actively invite team members to enroll by adopting certain key mindsets and behaviours. They include:

  • Engaging in active listening
  • Asking a lot of open-ended questions
  • Asking for and providing feedback – not just what you want to hear, but more importantly what you need to hear
  • Hold team activities aimed at uncovering what worries them

Respond appreciatively – Having set the stage and invited engagement, it is important to reinforce the targeted mindset and behaviours. This can be accomplished by:

  • Showing appreciation when people respond
  • Focusing on solutions instead of blame
  • Embracing messengers – even when the message isn’t exactly great news or when it challenges the status quo
  • Explaining the reasoning behind your decisions

What’s Missing?

In this article, I have sought to document what psychological safety is; how it impacts the performance of teams that succeed in creating and sustaining it; and what individual leaders can do to promote and secure psychological safety on their own teams.

The evidence in support of this theory of change seems compelling. Why then, is it that more organisations (and more leaders) have not embraced or attained it?

In your own environment, what are the barriers to psychological safety? And how can they be overcome?

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