‘Psychological safety’ is a term used widely in teams today. The Google study (New York Times, 2016) on what differentiates high performing – and innovative – teams placed it in the vocabulary; and on the agenda of most teams and their leaders. It resonated strongly as individuals, for the first time, had a name for the feeling of being able to be authentically oneself, speak up and take risks in a team environment. Our experience of being willing to be vulnerable in some teams, and not in others, had both a term and science behind this important experience. Important because when we feel interpersonally safe and move beyond self-protection in a team, it allows us to do sharper thinking, unfiltered sharing, productive conflict navigation and engage constructively in handling errors and failures. Psychological safety is at the heart of team learning, team accountability and team innovation.
Importantly, psychological safety is not about ‘teams being nice’ to one another. It is not about tiptoeing around goals, performance, or accountability. It builds a way of working in a team that moves beyond hierarchy and fear - of being seen as incompetent, ignorant, negative, or disruptive according to Amy Edmundson, the preeminent researcher on this topic. (Visit www.fearlessorganization.com to take a free team survey on your team’s psychological safety). By moving beyond self-preservation and levels of authority, teams learn faster, innovate more, and take greater accountability. They simply perform better.
As psychological safety is founded on interpersonal relationships that are characterised by trust, inclusion, and respect, it is something that needs to be built not simply between the leader and the team; but between team members themselves. That said, specific and tangible actions from the team leader helps create the conditions for psychological safety.
The starting point is not making psychological safety an end in itself. Rather, team leaders are invited to emphasise the team’s required outputs and goals, how these are changing and what is needed to do them well. This enables the team members to themselves see the need for a way of working that is fundamentally different from a ‘business as usual’ approach.
Next, the team leader can intentionally set the tone by taking eight tangible actions:
Being approachable and accessible
Acknowledging the limits of current knowledge and being clear that they don’t have all the answers’ and stressing the importance of the team’s collective knowledge to charter this unnavigated territory
Being willing to show vulnerability and discuss their own mistakes and missteps and how they learnt from this
Actively inviting participation, and in particul asking for input from team members lower in the hierarchy
Refraining from punishing failure, using this as a way of learning and improving
Using direct and plain language
Setting boundaries around acceptable performance
Holding team members accountable.
Edmundson (2016, p146) positions the role of the team leader clearly in:
‘Research also indicates that skilled team leaders can reward excellence, sanction poor performance, and still embrace the inevitable errors that accompany teaming and learning. In other words, it is possible to have both high psychological safety and high accountability. To do so, leaders must communicate clear expectations about performance and accountability without communicating a resistance to bad news.’
Teamery builds better teams by collaborating with teams and their leaders to tangibly and concretely build conditions for psychological safety.
Emundson, A.C (2012). Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.