When I was in the early years of my professional career I remember being absolutely terrified that people would figure out that I didn’t have all the answers. That I didn’t know what I was talking about (or what they were talking about). Or worse yet, they’d think I wasn’t good/smart/confident/articulate enough to be there.
I’d hold back from speaking up in meetings because I was afraid I’d say the wrong thing and embarrass myself and the company.
I was constantly trying to maintain an image of myself as a competent, expert professional, which was ridiculous as, in hiring a junior, there was zero expectation for me to be an expert.
Sadly, my experience is not uncommon. It occurs not just in juniors and new employees but in employees at all levels of seniority. And although there’s a sizeable chunk of imposter syndrome layered in there, there’s another school of thought that would suggest the environment I was working in wasn’t psychologically safe.
So, what exactly is psychological safety?
Psychological safety describes an organizational or team climate in which people are comfortable being and expressing themselves.
When there is psychological safety, team members feel that they can take interpersonal risks without fear of embarrassment, rejection, negative labelling or punishment. This might involve:
- Asking for help
- Asking for clarification
- Seeking or giving feedback
- Admitting a mistake or lack of knowledge
- Voicing an alternative viewpoint
- Critiquing a project or idea
- Trying something new
Psychological safety was brought to the fore by Harvard Business School Novartis Professor Amy Edmondson when she was researching teams in hospitals to find out what makes an effective team.
You’d think that the better teams would make less mistakes, right?
Wrong. Contrary to expectations, Edmondson found that high-performing teams actually reported more errors than the low-performing ones. But it wasn’t that they were making more errors, it was that they were more willing to report and talk about them.
In the less effective teams, on the other hand, nurses remained silent about the errors they witnessed. Why? Because the team environment wasn’t conducive to doing so. It wasn’t psychologically safe.
This hesitation to speak up, both when the content has a negative slant (i.e. admitting an error or expressing disagreement) or a positive one (i.e. suggesting an improvement or new idea), has been programmed into our psyche since the beginning of time.
Humans are social creatures. We live and operate in packs and silence is safer than risking any harm to our social identity or ‘image’ that might see us being rejected or excluded from the pack. And, as Edmonson says – it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The reason that we’re so risk avoidant comes from the way our brain operates when under threat.
Psychological safety and the brain
When we’re deciding whether or not to speak up, the brain assesses our environment for any threats, to ensure that it’s safe to do so. If a threat is detected, the amygdala (the alarm centre of the brain) triggers the fight or flight response, which heightens our senses and pumps blood to our body preparing us to face danger.
Although this response was useful to our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago when faced with a lion in the jungle, it’s not so helpful in our comparatively safe corporate (aka lion-free) environment.
This primitive response tells us that speaking up is dangerous and so, we stay quiet.
Questions to assess psychological safety
At this point, you’re more than likely thinking, are the teams in my business psychologically safe? How can I find out?
Team psychological safety can be seen in how team members present themselves at work, and the norms and culture of that team, including how team members treat and respond to one another.
Here’s some questions you can ask to get a gauge on whether your teams are psychologically safe:
- Admitting lack of knowledge: do you or your team members feel comfortable admitting lack of knowledge, asking questions or discussing a topic they are unfamiliar with, or do they stay quiet or try to maintain a veil of expertise?
- Talking about problems: do you or your team members feel comfortable bringing up problems or tough issues in a team or one-on-one environment?
- Expressing alternative opinions: do you or your team members feel comfortable expressing alternative opinions or disagreeing with others? Do they engage in healthy discussion or do team members quickly agree and engage in groupthink?
- Making mistakes: do you or your team members admit mistakes, errors, incidents or failures and see them as a learning opportunity, or do they try to hide, bury or blame them on others?
- Contributing to projects: do all team members, no matter their seniority, role, age, gender, ethnicity feel comfortable contributing to projects and in meetings?
- Trying something new: do team members feel comfortable taking risks to trying something new, or do they refrain from making changes ‘because this is the way it’s always been done’ or for fear of hurting someone’s feelings?
- Asking for help: do team members ask for help when they need it? Are other team members generous and willing to provide it?
- Bringing the whole self to work: do team members talk about, show or embrace qualities of themselves that are external to work e.g. their family life, hobbies etc?
- Giving and receiving feedback: how is feedback given and received? Is it seen as constructive, valued and taken on board, or are team members sensitive or argumentative?
- Contributing to the team: do team members feel that their skills and knowledge are valued and utilised? Are team members encouraged and able to extend themselves outside of their role, or do they stay within what’s prescribed?
The business case for psychological safety
By now, hopefully you’ll have some idea of the level of psychological safety in your team.
Perhaps you’ve already got a cohesive, supportive team, or maybe there’s a bit of work to do. Before we get into the nitty gritty of how you can cultivate a culture of psychological safety, let’s touch on what the benefits of a psychologically safe environment are for your business.
According to Barbara Frederickson from the University of North Carolina, when we feel safe, we are more motivated, open-minded, creative, resilient and persistent – which are all precursors to finding better solutions.
In addition to this, research has found psychological safety and an environment free from threat to be linked to a range of other benefits that both directly and indirectly influence business performance, including:
- Increased employee engagement
- Improved mental health and wellbeing
- Lower turnover
- Increased sales revenue
- Innovation and sharing of ideas
- Active individual and team learning
- Higher job satisfaction
- Empowerment and speaking up, despite lack of confidence
While the benefits of psychological safety are vast, the effects of an environment that is not psychologically safe are equally impactful on a business. In a culture that doesn’t enable or encourage speaking up, asking questions or admitting errors, vital opportunities for learning are missed and further errors often made.
And sometimes these errors can be fatal. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the true cause of aeroplane crashes is often an accumulation of errors of teamwork and communication.
One such incident was the 1990 crash of Colombian airliner Avianca flight 052. Poor communication between the co-pilot and pilot and a series of errors (which weren’t called out by the co-pilot) that occurred in the lead up to the plane running out of fuel could have prevented the crash from happening altogether. Running out of fuel was simply the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
Being able to raise and learn from errors and failures and adapt quickly gives businesses a huge advantage over those who don’t. This is particularly obvious in competitive, fast-moving industries like technology, which is exactly what Google found when they studied the dynamics of effective teams.
Google’s project Aristotle and psychological safety
Aristotle’s famous quote ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ perfectly describes the way teams work together.
Through a fusion of differing skill sets, knowledge, backgrounds, opinions and ways of thinking, teams produce solutions that are often far superior to that which could have come from one person alone – because two (or more!) heads are better than one.
In an attempt to leverage this, Google set about trying to better understand what exactly makes up an effective team in a two-year study which they aptly named ‘Project Aristotle’.
They looked at both team composition (e.g. personality traits, skills, demographics) and team dynamics (e.g. what it is like to work with other team members) and what they found was that it didn’t really matter who was on the team, but how the team worked together.
They identified five things that successful teams had in common.
The five elements of successful teams, according to Google
- Psychological safety
Of the five, psychological safety was found to be the most critical element, and its presence was necessary for the other four to occur.
Charles Duhigg, who wrote a New York Times story on the project said:
What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘work face’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home.
But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.
Ways to foster psychological safety
Fostering psychological safety isn’t just a one off thing like getting everyone together for a team lunch or activity (although that won’t hurt!); it’s an ongoing process and commitment. Not unlike a bonsai tree, if it’s carefully cultivated and attended to, it will grow into something beautiful, but its delicate ecosystem can also be easily damaged by neglect.
Edmondson suggests three things to build psychological safety in a team (and we’ve added another four that we think are pretty important).
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
Make it known that there is uncertainty around the problem/project/task, and that you don’t have all of the answers. Reiterate that everyones’ input is important and that it’s okay to take risks.
“We can’t know what will happen, we’ve got to have everybody’s brains – and voices – in the game, that creates the rationale for speaking up.” Edmondson says.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility
Secondly, leaders need to emphasise that they don’t know how to do it and that they are not perfect.
“Say simple things like ‘I may miss something I need to hear from you’. This goes for subordinates, colleagues and peers alike. That creates more safety for speaking up.”
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions
Be curious about what other team members bring to the table. Be curious about what you don’t know.
“Asking a lot of questions creates a necessity for voice.”
And don’t forget to listen to the answers 😉 You can demonstrate active listening through non-verbal communication like eye contact, facial expressions, body posture and gestures.
Summarising or paraphrasing what’s been said is also a good way to show that you’re listening and that you understand.
- Ask for feedback
Create a culture of continuous, 360 degree feedback. Asking for feedback helps to build a culture of trust and shows that you care.
You can ask for feedback not just on how psychologically safe the environment is, but on how employees are coping (wellness checks), how they’re enjoying their role, if they’re feeling included and how they feel about the company, (i.e. eNPS). Managers and leaders should also have the opportunity to provide feedback. Gathering feedback helps to create a rich picture of sentiment across your organization and across time so that you can quickly recognise any issues or shifts as and when they occur.
- Act on feedback
Don’t just ask for feedback, act on it! This is absolutely vital to demonstrate to team members that they’ve been heard and that you’re committed to making the workplace the best it can be.
- Team building and psychological safety exercises
You can also conduct psychological safety exercises within your team. Gallup’s Jake Herway recommends asking the team the following set of questions to help create a set of shared values, purpose and identity.
- What can we count on each other for?
- What is our team’s purpose?
- What is the reputation we aspire to have?
- What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfil our purpose
Discussing and answering these questions will allow team members to be vulnerable, honest and engaged. Herway emphasises that the order of the questions is crucial, as the first one highlights strengths and will help to establish an environment of individual safety before moving onto team safety. Speaking out loud about each other’s strengths validates for each individual that their contribution and place in the team is safe, valued and appreciated.
FREE DOWNLOAD: Team psychological safety exercise
- Be vulnerable
Psychological safety is about encouraging and enabling your team to feel like they can bring their whole selves to work and that it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes. And one of the best ways to do this is by example.
Be open about who you are outside of work. Be vulnerable in discussing your opinions and failures. In doing so, you’ll make it okay for others to do the same.
Final thoughts: Psychological safety in remote and hybrid teams
The case for psychological safety becomes even more critical when teams don’t work together in the same physical location.
Although the benefits of remote working are many, it does present challenges in building connection and team cohesiveness. Research has shown that in hybrid teams, those who are working in the office together have a stronger shared group identity than those working externally, who felt less attached to the group.
On top of this, not working in the office impacted the remote workers’ capacity to build relationships and their career development compared to in-office workers who were more likely to receive preferential treatment from leaders.
Proactively and consciously creating an environment of psychological safety will help make those at home feel more like they can contribute. Here’s a few tips for how to do it.
- Be inclusive and ask everyone on the meeting specifically for their input or questions.
- Communicate clearly – whether it’s the purpose of a meeting, expectations with regards to work style and schedule or project responsibilities,
- Ask questions that show that it’s okay for team members to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work (who they are at work, as well as who they are outside of work e.g. hobbies, family etc)
- Create opportunities for team members to connect with and understand each other so they can empathise with each others’ struggles, strengths and sensitivities.
FREE DOWNLOAD: Managing hybrid teams toolkit
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