Leadership Toolbox: Psychological Safety
Have you ever wondered why some teams seem to thrive and grow in difficult times? They trust one another, freely share knowledge, admit mistakes and generate creative and innovative ideas at the drop of a hat.
Others spend their time covering up mistakes, concealing information from bosses and colleagues, and refuse to admit that there might be gaps in their knowledge. Then they wonder why they don’t get the results they want. They are characterised by cut-throat competition, where only the strongest can survive.
Psychological safety is a key factor in the way that teams work together and produce results. This post explains the concept of psychological safety, its benefits, and how to go about developing it with the teams you work in and lead.
What is psychological safety?
The term was coined by Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School. She defines it as “a shared belief amongst group members that the group is a safe place to take risks, admit mistakes, and learn new things”. That is, it’s OK for a group member to be vulnerable, speak up, and ask questions, because the group will continue to accept him or her. And more than that, the team will embrace questions, mistakes, ideas, and critiques of the status quo as avenues for learning and growth.
When we lack psychological safety, we function poorly – mistrust, suspicion and self-preservation rule the roost. But when we have it, we can be our very best selves: creative, engaging, able to learn, productive, resourceful, curious and inventive.
The benefits of psychological safety
Cultures with higher levels of psychological safety are associated with higher levels of team performance. This makes intuitive sense – if you don’t feel safe around your colleagues to ask questions, make mistakes and learn from them, then you’ll almost certainly waste time and energy trying to hide your uncertainty and cover up your mistakes.
Psychological safety supports a team or organisational culture where people:
- share information and knowledge
- suggest organisational improvements
- take initiative to develop new products and services
- learn from their mistakes and those of others
Culture-building takes time
Edmondson has found that psychological safety is made up of three factors: a shared interpersonal trust, respect for each other’s competence, and caring about each other as people. All three factors must be present in order for team members to feel safe to speak up, ask questions, and admit mistakes.
Psychological safety isn’t created overnight. It takes time and consistency. So if one day, the leader embraces the admission of a mistake as a path to learning, and the next day castigates the people who made or identified the mistake, interpersonal trust is a pipe dream.
Team members also need to respect one another’s competence and care for one another as fellow human beings. This means that climates which pit team members against one another are unlikely places for psychological safety to develop.
What about motivation and accountability?
Creating trust, respecting competence and caring for one another doesn’t mean that we have to try to please the people around us or should avoid holding people accountable for their actions. We cannot please everyone all the time, and it is imperative to learn from past experiences.
Creating a culture of psychological safety does not negate the importance of motivation and accountability. They are separate dimensions. The gold standard is for you, your team and your organisation to spend as much time as possible in the learning zone (also known as the high-performance zone).
A caveat here: I don’t believe it is possible to stay in the learning/high-performance zone permanently. Over time, a range of internal and external factors will influence the levels of both psychological safety and motivation and accountability. What is important is to recognise when the levels have changed, and be ready to implement strategic and tactical responses to move those levels back in the desired direction. Some pre-planning here will save you hours of heartache and stress when the inevitable happens!
Building a culture of psychological safety through inclusive leadership
A culture of psychological safety can only be built through effective and inclusive leadership. Effective leaders must have self-awareness (read my post about self-awareness here). And there are several other ways to become a more inclusive leader and build a culture of psychological safety, which Amy Edmondson sets out in one of her TED talks.
So, a quick summary of the three inclusive leadership approaches from the video, plus a bonus that Edmondson relates elsewhere in her work:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution one
The future is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Mistakes happen because we don’t know enough yet, not because someone did something wrong. We need to learn together, using everyone’s brains and insights. This gives people the rationale for speaking up.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility
You need your team’s input because you will occasionally miss something important. Let them know you want to hear from them when you do. This creates safety around speaking up.
- Model curiosity
Ask lots of questions. Check your assumptions. Don’t leap to conclusions. Hold-off making major decisions until your team have provided their input and perspectives. This creates a necessity for people to speak up.
- Embrace the messenger
Whatever you do, don’t shoot the messenger! The only thing worse than hearing the bad news is not hearing the bad news. Thank them; recognise them; invite them to help solve the problem; promote them. This shows that speaking up is valued.
Four questions to start the conversation with your team
Being an effective and inclusive leader is a great start, but it isn’t enough. To really get the culture moving in the right direction, Jack Herway recommends starting a conversation with your team using the following four questions (in order of presentation).
- 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?
As team members develop a conversation based on these questions, they build trust and respect for each others’ strengths and get a sense of what it means to be a team working towards a common purpose. Over time, this develops into a climate of openness, and a feeling of shared responsibility to learn and grow together.
(all links open in a new tab)
- Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Teams – Amy Edmondson, Administrative Science Quarterly
- Psychological Safety: the history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct – Amy Edmondson & Zhike Lei, Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior
- Creating a Climate of Learning and Innovation in Organizations – Professional and Organizational Development, University of Washington
- How to Create a Culture of Psychological Safety – Jack Henway, Gallup