What is psychological safety?

The topic of Psychological safety has been getting a lot of airtime recently.  One definition of this term is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.  And as a leader, you’re responsible for cultivating it and fostering a healthy level of it in your team. 

It’s not about just being nice

There’s one frame that often gets in the way on this front.  Quite often, when leaders think about psychological safety, they assume it’s just about being nice to your team members, and they worry about sacrificing high performance for the sake of tiptoeing around each other and not having the hard conversations that need to be had.  But the point is you don’t have to trade high performance in your organization for psychological safety.  You can actually have both.

I often find it helpful to start this discussion by looking at 4 different situations that often arise in team environments:

  • Comfort zone – High psychological safety, Low performance.  People get along but there is no interpersonal challenge.  Vague and unenforced performance standards.  I often call this zone the zone of ruinous empathy, where everyone is tiptoeing around each other but no one is having the more difficult conversations. 
  • Apathy zone – Low psychological safety, Low performance.  In this zone people are often competing with each other for position, do the basic job and nothing more, and there is little sharing of ideas.  Knowledge is power, people hold their cards close to their chest and as a result the teach doesn’t accomplish much.
  • Anxiety zone – Low psychological safety, High performance.  In this zone there is blatant distrust of others, people are afraid to offer ideas, try new things or ask for help.  Employees are blamed openly for mistakes, people are pitted against each other and there is an atmosphere of fear.  Often folks operating in this type of team show up in my virtual office with burnout.  The stress of operating in an environment like this one is just too high and damaging over the long run.
  • Learning and High Performance zone – “The sweet spot” so to speak.  In this zone, collaboration and learning are high priorities.  The leader and team members challenge and encourage each other.  We have the tough conversations and address the things that need to be addressed without blame and with empathy.

So which of these 4 zones is your team currently operating in?  Be honest!  Over my time in business I’ve worked in a version of every one of these zones.  But you don’t get to the Learning and High Performance zone by accident.  As a leader, you’ve got to work to create it. 

So what can you do as a leader to increase psychological safety and performance?

Consider some of these options, adapted from the work of Amy Edmonson, Harvard psychological safety guru:

  • Knowing why our work matters – having purpose.  When there is a shared sense of purpose folks feel more inclined to speak up with something isn’t right, and the team is more invested in the shared mission and vision, rather than personal agendas.
  • Modelling curiosity by asking genuine, open-ended questions.  As opposed to closed ended leading questions.  We often don’t ask enough questions. 
  • Reflect what you hear people say so they feel heard and acknowledged: “I’m hearing that….”  This simple skill of acknowledging is ace, and I use it all the time as a coach.  The bottom line is the more folks feel listened to, the more likely they are to open up and share.
  • Avoid BLAME or looking for who to blame if this goes wrong.  I’ll never forget a situation I had when I moved into a new group, something went wrong and the leader voiced during a meeting, “Who should we blame for this?”  He wasn’t joking.
  • Frame errors/the work as a learning problem not an execution problem.  This one is subtle but powerful.  Rather than, “someone forgot to follow protocol,” what can we learn from this example to ensure this situation doesn’t happen again?
  • Use the “we’ve never been here before” approach – admit the uncertainty: we can’t know what will happen, we’ve got to have everyone’s brains and voices in the game.  This opens up the space for folks to share their thoughts.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility. “I may miss something”, “I don’t know everything”.  When we frame things in this way it allows other team members to be more comfortable with their own fallibility.
  • Set clear standards and boundaries for the work you do. Nothing creates a bigger disconnect in a group than unclear expectations.  You’re stepping on each other’s toes, it creates confusion and conflict.  Trust goes down as a result.

Coaching questions for thought:

  • Which of the above are you routinely doing? 
  • Which could you start?  What impact would this have on your team?

Shelley Pernot is a leadership and career coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and find a career that utilizes them.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!

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