Three Steps to Build Psychological Safety in your Team

Three Steps to Build Psychological Safety in your Team

What is psychological safety and do you have it in your team?

Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as "the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." In a four-year study of over 200 teams, Google found psychological safety to be the number one determinant of high performing teams.

If you want your team to be creative, to challenge each other's ideas and engage in active dialogue, you need to ensure there is a strong sense of psychological safety within your team. In teams with high psychological safety team members feel free to take risks and know that they will give them the benefit of the doubt and not judge or shame them. Your team culture is an active, living thing and it is shaped by every communication and action of the team leader and team members.
Trust and safety can take months even years to carefully develop and can be destroyed very quickly with a misjudged comment or feedback delivered in the wrong way.

Follow these steps to support psychological safety in your team:

  • Admit your mistakes

Team leaders demonstrating a high ego is one of the biggest barriers to psychological safety. Others will not admit their mistakes if you are not able to do the same. This requires you to drop your ego and take a humble and human approach to leadership. No one is perfect and pretending you are will only create a barrier between yourself and the team. So, admit when you have made a mistake; talk about your personal setbacks in your career and ask for help when you need it.

  • Create forums for open dialogue

Provide opportunities for team members to share ideas and to challenge each other. Make it clear that all ideas are welcome and that initial ideas should not be ruled out or taken down by others. There is a time for creativity and exploration, and critique at this stage only prevents people from opening up.
Often in meetings ideas are raised and immediately dismissed, how often have you heard (or said) things like: "we tried that before and it didn't work", "we don't have a budget for that", or "that's not going to work." Before any idea is dismissed there should be an attempt to understand it more, ask questions and start a discussion. Instead ask questions like - "what would that look like?", "how could that work" and "what would we need to do to make that possible?".

  • Shift from Blame to Learning

Mistakes will happen. Every mistake made is an opportunity to build psychological safety within your team. If your team realises that mistakes result in anger, blame and judgement they will quickly learn to hide mistakes and cover for each other when things go wrong. This reduces visibility of what is happening in the team, breaks down trust and results in a barrier going up between you and your team. Successful leaders cultivate a learning environment where it is actively demonstrated that mistakes are part of the learning process and ultimately result in growth.

When facing performance issues...

Don't do this

  • If a mistake was made by one person, don't talk about it in front of the whole team
  • Label the person with names like 'lazy', 'careless' or 'stupid'
  • Send negative feedback in an email (without voice tone it can be misinterpreted)

Do this instead

  • Before you respond check in with your intention? Punish? Blame? Investigate? Learn?
  • Become curious as to how the mistake happened.
  • Address the issue face to face where possible.
  • Listen to the other person with an open mind.
  • Discuss together in a collaborative way what can be done differently next time.

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