The highest performing teams experience psychological safety.
It’s that simple!
Do you want your team to flourish and perform at it’s best? Then create a fearless organization, says Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson. By fearless organization, she means one that provides psychological safety.
What is the Definition of Psychological Safety?
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is about being able to act and engage in a team without fear of negative consequences.
Amy Edmondson, who is a frontrunner researcher of psychological safety, defines it this way (1999: 350):
‘A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’ .
Psychological safety is thus about the assurance that no team member will be humiliated, laughed at, or punished for posing questions, speaking up with ideas, concerns, or mistakes. With William Kahn, it is about ‘daring to engage oneself without fear of negative consequences concerning neither one’s self-image, status or career’ (Kahn 1990:708)
Creating psychological safety is about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from one another, says Edmonson in a podcast for Harvard Business Review.
Team Psychological safety is thus about a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
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Originally, when conducting her research, Edmonson expected cohesive teams to make fewer mistakes than other teams, yet – to her surprise – her research showed that cohesive teams make as many mistakes as any other team. This may strike us as ‘counter-intuitive – that is, the opposite of what one would expect.
What she then realized is the following: the better team is the one that dares to talk about mistakes – it shares experiences across team-mates so all learn from each other’s experiences. Trust is, therefore, a major contributor to the creation of psychological safety.
The better team is the one that dares to talk about mistakes and share experience for others to learn from
Clearly, failing to facilitate an environment of psychological safety is a costly business for any organization. The reality of such a situation is that when you are heading for an unsuccessful project, organizational change process or any other disaster – employees keep their heads down in fear of repercussions and none dares to speak up.
While some may initiate a quiet whisper, a Gallup research report tells us that in the U.S., for example, only three in ten employees feel certain that their opinions count (Gallup 2017).
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Summing up the above, we need psychological safety to ensure high performing teams resulting in creative input, innovative ideas, and engaged employees.
The problem is that our brain simply does not like the idea of ‘sticking our neck out’ where a semi-toxic boss or a competitive co-worker may turn down our ideas before we are done expressing them. It puts us in a fight-or-flight mode. So to protect ourselves from retribution and fear of failure, well…we stay silent and become disengaged.
Google Research of What Makes a Good Team
Google did a huge study to see what differentiated great teams from not-so-great teams. Listen to Professor Edmondson explain in her own words what Google’s research revealed, why it surprised her, and what she learned from it.
Google research shows us that trustful team members take turns when communicating and give all involved the opportunity to speak. Moreover, the best teams demonstrate an ability to read and recognized each others’ feelings.
How to Create Psychological Safety?
It takes great leadership and management to create psychological safety.
As Edmondson points out in the video, ‘it can be very powerful when a leader apologizes for not having made it safe in the past’. It is always the leader’s responsibility to ‘go first’ and not blame employees as in ‘why didn’t you come to me’ and so forth.
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When blame is replaced with curiosity and listening, then a constructive path moving forward is opening up.
Blaming others is the easy way out, holding others responsible for actions, and it essentially fuels further tension and leads to defensiveness and disengagement (Psychology Today).
Pose How and What Questions – above Why, Who or When Questions
A great way to keep a conversation above blame and focused on a constructive path is to only pose questions that start with How and What AND include the word ‘I’.
For example: how can I help? What can I do to move us forward? What can I do to make sure that you never experience this again? And so forth.
Avoid why, who, and when questions that are likely to lead to blaming and shaming, such as: Who is responsible for this and why haven’t we received these products yet? Such questions are looking backward and lead nowhere.
You’d be amazed at how well this works in practice. The advice is passed on from a book my brother lent me. It’s a small easy-read book by John G. Miller called QBQ: the Question Behind the Question.
Miller’s practical method for posing questions – as mentioned above – helps you practicing always putting personal accountability into daily actions and avoiding blame. The advice is simple and has a real positive communication impact. It keeps you constructive and accountable instead of making you a victim of circumstances.
Honest Feedback is Paramount for Moving Forward Efficiently and Effectively while Removing Barriers for Innovation
If leaders sanction or talk down to people giving critical feedback – they are unlikely to receive honest feedback in the future.
Remember, you cannot direct the behavior of others directly. What you can do is change your own actions, reactions, and behavior to initiate different behavior in people around you.
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The crucial point is that ‘people tend to act in ways that inhibit learning when they face the potential of threat or embarrassment (Argyris 1982 in Edmonson 1999). Toxic leadership or employing leaders who fail to build trust are, therefore, extremely costly as psychological safety issues in the workplace destroy interpersonal relations and damage organizations at large. Emotional safety in the workplace and trust-building in teams and across teams should be of high priority. With Edmonson – employees withholding valuable information and knowledge in a knowledge society that holds knowledge as its greatest value is helping none!
One way to call for feedback is to follow this one leaders’ example as he expresses how he after every presentation asks for feedback on delivery. It disarms difficult conversations and increases trust in leaders. He specifically poses the following questions (Delizonna 2017):
- What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
- How did it feel to hear this message?
- How could I have presented it more effectively?
Be present at the moment when providing the feedback and be prepared to listen and discuss the challenges others or you yourself are facing in an open-minded way. Feedback and critique are essentially what provides personal improvement.
Ask these 4 Questions to Increase Feelings of Psychological Safety: EXAMPLE
We will highlight an example, which Jake Herway shares with us in a Gallup article about how to create a culture of psychological safety.
Herway (Gallup 2017) proposes to use four simple questions to build trust in teams:
- 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 fulfill our purpose?
It is important to note that the order of the questions is important as they move from building personal trust and then team psychological safety.
So Herway explains how he took an HR team aside to a separate room. After having shared some overall information and education with the team, he started posing the first of the four questions to the person next to him.
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The magic part was that after having asked the first person what her team can count on her for – it became clear that she would not value it as highly as her teammates. Sharing it openly the team could assure her of the value. ‘You can count on me to meet deadlines’, she responded after having thought it through. ‘Yet, doesn’t everyone do that’, she then asked – as if this was nothing. The team members then told her how they valued her timeliness and shared how it was part of their own successes.
After having heard each other’s responses concerning personal accountability, it was possible to move on to align the team with a shared purpose and identity.
Herway then facilitated this process by posing some helper-questions such as:
- ‘Why do you come to work every day?
- What is the purpose of HR in your company?
- How do you achieve that purpose together?
- Then, with that purpose and process in mind, what do you aspire to be known for in your company?
- What is the brand you want to create?’ (Gallup 2017)
Step by step the team built up a safety net for all of them – first by building up individual safety and next by building team psychological safety. Through these steps, it was possible to establish a healthy and safe culture, where all felt heard and safe to engage fully.
Start in the small, lead by example, and listen actively.
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Evaluate and Survey Psychological Safety in your Organization
Make anonymous evaluations of the level of psychological safety in your organization. Leaders can easily overestimate levels of trust and research shows they overestimate employees’ positive views on their own leadership.
The reason for that can be straightforward in light of the above. If employees are silenced due to fear of repercussions in matters of organizational daily activities – then they are further unlikely to voice their critique of the cultural environment to their closest leader.
In traditional authoritarian organizations, it may be viewed as unacceptable behavior to voice any critique to any leader – both to the closest leader and to any leader above one’s immediate leader. Therefore, leaders – in these types of organizations – are often left in the dark as concerns what organizational members think of their leadership skills and the creative organizational culture.
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My own research shows that dominant ideologies (logics) among leaders and specific departments are likely to prevail and hence stay dominant (Baunsgaard and Clegg 2013). To legitimize dominant views, anybody opposing these dominant views – in such psychologically unsafe environments – may thus be pointed out as incompetent, lacking both skills and strategic ability, or even as laughable.
It is to be noticed, moreover, that psychological safety – in cultures where employees fear repercussions – are likely missing at all levels in the organization hence affecting employees, middle-managers, and leaders at large.
Benefits of Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace
Psychological safety is beneficial for the organization in a variety of ways. Keep in mind that organizations failing to create a culture of psychological safety are likely to have disengaged and somewhat fearful employees. Disengagement and fear are furthermore the routes to what may turn into alarming high levels of stress among employees.
Stress is acceptable for shorter periods of time. Yet when states of fear, feelings of not daring to speak or not feeling heard become more permanent rather than being the exception to the rule – then the risk of long term effects of stress – such as mental health problems (depression, anxiety), cardiovascular diseases (heart problems, high blood pressure), obesity and so forth, sets in.
Besides facilitating high performing and effective teams, the positive health benefits of psychological safety should not be overlooked.
The following list points out some of the most well-researched positive benefits of psychological safety in the workplace.
Psychological safety increases:
- overall team performance
- team member’s level learning from mistakes*
- the likelihood of shutting down projects and strategies hurtful for the organization
- personal engagement*
- team engagement and motivation*
- positive work environment
- organizational performance
*See Bear & Frese (2003)
Studies demonstrate that participatory management facilitates psychological safety (Edmonson et al. 2001) as do inclusive management. We call for further research to cast future light onto specific leadership and management styles fostering a safe environment where psychological safety is key.
Baer, M & Frese, M. (2003). Innovation is not enough: climates for initiative and psychological safety, process innovations, and firm performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24(1): 45-68.
Baunsgaard, Vibeke Vad and Stewart Clegg (2013). Walls and Boxes: The Effects of Professional Identity, Power & Rationality on Strategies for Cross-Functional Integration. Organization Studies, Vol. 34(9): 1299-1325.
Delizonna, Laura (2017). High-performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. August 24., 2017. Retrieved online March 5. 2020: https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it.
Gallup (2017). How to Create a Culture of Psychological Safety. December 7., 2017. Retrieved online March 5. 2020: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236198/create-culture-psychological-safety.aspx.
Edmondson, Amy (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Wiley Publishing.
Edmondson, Amy (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44(2): 350-383.
Edmondson, A., Bohmer, R. M. & Pisano, G. P. (2001). Disrupted Routines: Team Learning and New Technology Implementation in Hospitals. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 46(4): 685-716.
Kahn, William (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal. No. 33(4): 692-724.
Miller, John G. (2004). QBQ: The Questions Behind the Question. Penguin Putnam.
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