In recent years, the term “psychological safety” got popular in leadership and team-building practices. We want to explain what stands behind it and how you and your team can benefit from starting to reflect on the safety of your own team environment.
What “psychological safety” means
The term psychological safety got reinforced from Google’s quest to find out what makes a high performing team. We all know different assumptions about what makes a great team, e.g. having the best and brightest people, bringing in diverse perspectives, or spending time after work together. In a study started in 2012, Google looked at hundreds of their teams in order to figure out if those assumptions were actually true. After a long search for patterns, they found this: What distinguished the high performing teams from the average performing ones was the ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’’ – a definition called “psychological safety” by the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. In her research, she for example observed that one team made more mistakes than the other, but nevertheless performed better. The high performing team lived a high degree of psychological safety and talked openly about mistakes, whereas the other team didn’t. So the team in reality did not make more mistakes, but rather learned from the transparency of talking about them.
Another MIT study from 2008 came to similar results, observing that what distinguished the good from the average teams were two behaviors: first, team members spoke roughly for the same amount of time in each meeting. Second, good teams all had the ability to sense how other team members felt based on their verbal and facial expressions. Team members felt safe to be heard, understood and included, and they all were responsible to keep it that way.
How “psychological safety” shows in your team
Based on this somewhat surprising, somewhat intuitively “logical” results, Google started an initiative to help leaders and teams foster psychological safety in their teams, which you can read more about here. (Yes, software engineers got convinced that it is important to “talk about feelings”). Translating the insights above, in a psychologically safe team, team members…
- can ask each other for help
- do not deliberately boycott the work of others
- feel valued in their individual abilities and talents
- feel free to be different from the others
- can address problems and sensitive issues
- feel free to take risks
- learn from mistakes instead of scapegoating.
How you can start the reflection
These profound insights make it clear that starting a reflection process on psychological safety, either for yourself or with your team, is of high value for your individual, team and organizational performance. It is also fair to mention that psychological safety is not a fixed state of mind that, once reached, never goes away, but rather a constant process of balancing and negotiating, so you will fall in and fall out, especially at the beginning. Also, it is important to find a good balance between psychological safety and accountability – if employees feel safe at work, but are not engaged and expected to perform, nobody will be truly satisfied.
To start reflecting on the level of psychological safety in your team, we encourage you to try out the following:
- Self-assessment: Starting with yourself in the role of a leader, how much do you live the aspects above? How easy is it for you to ask for help, address problems or take risks? Do you feel comfortable clearly expressing what kind of contribution you expect from your team members, both in terms of performance and collaboration? Note that whenever you feel you are having difficulties, this will very likely show in your team as well. If your own assessment is low in one aspect, what is missing or what would help you move one step closer towards it? Exchange your thoughts with a colleague, reach out for sparring with a trusted friend or talk about it with a coach.
- Team-assessment: You can do this together with your team, if you feel comfortable doing so, eventually with the support of an experienced facilitator. How much do team members truly dare to speak their mind? How comfortable do they feel expressing something that is difficult for them, e.g. dealing with a challenging task, a colleague, or a client? And also: Do they know what is expected from them as a team to make a valuable contribution for the company? The purpose of this session should be to establish an open and judgment-free atmosphere, with the aim to agree on 2-3 steps you can try out to establish a more psychologically safe team environment. Reflect on your progress regularly, e.g. once a month.
Furthermore, you as a leader can support psychological safety in your team by welcoming and appreciating input and feedback, involving employees in discussions and decisions, by talking about own mistakes and lessons learnt, but also by trusting them to do their job and to come to you when help is needed, by being available and by appreciating employees’ efforts and strengths (even if they have failed at one particular task).
We wish you much courage and fun on this transformative journey and see you next week on our companion channel!