Psychological Safety

Written by Phoebe Cook, Psychologist at Within Consulting

Improve team effectiveness and productivity just by making staff feel safe

Google has recently released findings on an internal study spanning two years that compared high performing teams with those teams that were not performing as effectively. The key factor that contributed to team effectiveness and productivity? Psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School Professor, first coined the term psychological safety (see her Ted Talk here), which refers to:

“a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”

Edmondson was trying to understand the qualities of high performing teams. She analysed data amongst medical teams at a hospital. A surprising (and initially alarming!) finding was that the higher performing teams were making more mistakes than lower performing teams. Further analysis revealed that the higher performing teams were actually more comfortable sharing and discussing their mistakes than lower performing teams.

What does psychological safety look like?

A team with high psychological safety is one where individual team members feel:
–    that they will not be judged for making a mistake
–    feel safe in bringing up challenging problems and tough issues
–    comfortable taking risks
–    they can ask others for help
–    they are not being undermined by other team members
–    that their unique skills are valued.

How does psychological safety improve effectiveness and productivity?

One reason experts suggest that psychological safety can produce improvements in team functioning draws on the broaden and build theory; when we experience positive emotions, we can become more open, flexible and accepting. Think to yourself, how would you approach a problem or challenge at work if you felt safe knowing that there was room to take some risks, that your novel suggestions wouldn’t be knocked back or your would not be judged for taking a different approach to the norm?

How can managers improve psychological safety?

Here are some tips from re:Work, a Google initiative to help you support the people in your organisation.

1.    Demonstrate engagement
e.g. listen and respond to each individual team member’s suggestions, be present during team discussions, ask respectful questions to show interest (e.g. That sounds great, tell me more).

2.    Demonstrate understanding
e.g. validate individual’s opinions or suggestions (e.g. “I understand what you mean”), avoid blaming and focus on solutions (e.g. “What can we do better next time?” “What have we learnt from this?”)

3.    Be inclusive
e.g. ask for feedback from all of your team members, be transparent about your decisions (e.g. let the whole team know why a project was cut short), call out non-inclusive behaviours (e.g. step in when someone cuts off another team member), acknowledge individual team member’s contributions and strengths explicitly

4.    Show confidence and conviction without being inflexible
e.g. support and represent the team (e.g. share team’s work with senior leadership, provide opportunities for your team to have exposure to senior leaders), assert your views confidently but encourage people to challenge you, share your own failures and mistakes, encourage and reward appropriate risk-taking or innovation (e.g. “Thank-you for that unique input on how we could address customer complaints”).

What else contributed to team effectiveness?

The remaining top factors that contributed to team effectiveness were:
–    dependability
–    structure and clarity
–    meaning
–    impact

Importantly, the researchers found that psychological safety was an essential foundation upon which these other four factors were built, further highlighting the importance of developing and promoting a safe environment for the individuals in your team to flourish.

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