Psychological Safety – What is it? And what does it mean for your team?

Oct 19, 2020 | Blog

In 2015, Google conducted a two-year study on team performance to uncover the secret to creating the most effective teams. 

They evaluated what made an effective team based on that team’s productivity – how well its members achieved their goals and targets, how many problems they fixed, how satisfied their customers were, etc. – so as to quantitatively evaluate their efficacy. 

They quickly discovered that the secret to a great team wasn’t its members’ seniority, nor IQ, nor even an high-calibre education. It didn’t even seem to matter which individual personalities made up the team. 

The key to a successful team proved not to be its individual components, but the how the team itself functioned as a unit. 

The single most influential factor in how that team worked together was psychological safety.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is defined by Amy Edison of Harvard University as “an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.“

This affects whether teammates feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of their peers and superiors. It reflects an implicit trust within a team that they will support one another.

Psychological safety is also affected by inclusivity – whether people feel comfortable to bring their whole selves to work, and that they’re whole self, including their status, standing, religious beliefs, gender, sexuality, etc. will be wholly embraced. 

 

The impact of Psychological Safety

Google found that psychological safety has massive implications on the efficacy of a team.

It is associated with higher levels of collaboration, innovation, adoption of new tools, learning, and improvement. 

Teams with high levels of psychological safety achieve their goals faster and more successfully than those with lower levels, irregardless of other factors such as age, education, etc.  

They found that in a psychologically safe team, employees engage in an increased number of learning behaviours, such as asking for feedback or help, admitting error or insufficient knowledge, or trying something new. These behaviours put employees out of their comfort zone, represent opportunities for individuals to grow as a professionals, and for teams to collaborate, innovate and thrive together. 

The psychologist, Amy Edmondson‘s research confirms this, and further found that in highly performing teams the rate of error was higher than in less effective teams. This was because teammates were not afraid to admit to their mistakes, and from these mistakes to learn and improve. 

Psychological safety afforded employees the freedom to fail and to experiment, which all round imprived performance and efficacy of the teams in which it was present. 

On the other hand, a non-psychologically safe team is scientifically-proven to underperform. Without psychological safety, team members are afraid to speak out or to voice their opinions, and the fear of failure or humiliation they may consequently experience actually reduces their efficiency. The fear emotion consumes cognitive resources, diverting them from the areas that process new information and thereby suppressing creativity, innovation, and collaboration.

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How do I know if I have a psychologically safe team? 

Wondering if your team is a psychologically safe one? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to find out.

  • Do your team members regularly ask questions in team meetings? Do they feel the need to appear to know and understand everything perfectly?
  • Do your team members feel comfortable asking questions about complex or niche subjects? Can they query one another’s work without being put-down or discouraged? 
  • How often do your team members receive feedback on their work? How do they react to that feedback? Does it upset them or motivate them? Do they react defensively or do they discuss and embrace the feedback?
  • Do your team members ask for help when they need it? Do you observe casual collaborations between your team members?
  • How much do you know about your team members outside of work? Do they feel comfortable talking about themselves? If they were to talk about their private lives, would this be welcomed and accepted?
  • Do your team members feel comfortable taking risks and bringing new suggestions to the table?

 

How can I promote psychological safety in my team?

Edmondson cites three primary strategies for promoting psychological safety in a team or workplace. 

Communicate Transparently

Firstly, one should communicate transparently the challenges facing your organisation. This will give your employees the rationale behind voicing their opinions. It will help your employee understand the context behind their activities and where their efforts inside your organisation or team should be diverted. 

Invite Input

Secondly, leaders should proactively invite input from their team members. Leaders should set the example here, asking after the opinion of individual employees, and displaying curiosity and a collaborative mindset. 

Welcome Bad Ideas

Finally, leaders should be open to both good and bad ideas, and respond with appreciation for both. If employees are fearful of putting forward bad ideas, they won’t put forward good ones. Leaders will stimulate more innovation in the long term by creating a forum where employees can openly ideate, without fear of humiliation. 

Conclusion 

As Edmondson put it in her TED talk on the topic, “as long as there is uncertainty and interdependence, building a psychologically safe workplace is necessary.” 

Promoting psychological safety in your workplace and teams will have positive impact both internally and on the business end of your organisation,  helping you build a better workplace, more engaged employees, and more productive teams.

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