August 11, 2022

How to Build Psychological Safety, Not Destroy It

The Reflection Point team has always worked remotely. But we carve out time for regular multi-day in-person meetings (virtual during the pandemic).

We don’t just work when we’re together. We eat good meals, read and discuss stories (we are Reflection Point, after all), and engage in exercises to deepen our connection. This has helped us get comfortable enough to raise any idea - without fear of judgment.

A few years ago, an energetic young woman joined our team. She was eager to bring her spirit to our team meetings. But in the second one she attended, something shifted.

We were considering our work the previous three months and asking ourselves what went well, what didn’t, and what we might change. Our new team member got quiet, cold and hostile. It turns out that she had come from an organization where questions like these were “gotcha” questions, where her answers were always turned against her.

What was open and generative for us felt punitive and dangerous to her.

This was a powerful learning moment for me. The psychological safety we deliberately built was not strong enough to withstand the context she brought with her. We had to start again, doubling down on the skills that made our team safe for self-examination.

In a 2021 survey, 9 out of 10 workers said they had felt psychologically or physically unsafe at least once in the past eighteen months, a time period marked by much external turmoil: political division, a global pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

Another survey highlighted the asymmetry of psychological safety in the workplace: men feel safer than women, non-parent workers more than working parents and white employees more than people of color.  

Psychological safety is fragile. World news, prior employment experiences, diverse backgrounds and generational differences make it seem more like a fleeting condition than an established attribute. But it’s not impossible. You can maintain and sustain the hard-earned psychological safety of your team by doing these five things.

Frame team meetings as learning opportunities.

We tend to measure the value of meetings by what we accomplish. As a result, there’s a risk of rushing to action without adequate time to consider alternative points of view. Because it’s harder to offer a different perspective just prior to a decision than when a team is still in learning mode, we may silence innovative contributions. By framing your meetings as an opportunity for learning and reflection, you open the door to fresh ideas and encourage meaningful contributions.

Acknowledge your own fallibility.

Whether you are a leader or an expert, acknowledging that you are fallible models humility for the entire team. No one person ever has all the answers. If they did, you wouldn’t need a team. By celebrating the fact that we are all human, we create the conditions for more innovative thinking. We normalize mistakes and make it safe to fail.

Model genuine curiosity and ask LOTS of questions.

Most teams have talkers and non-talkers. But the most collectively intelligent teams - those who are best able to solve problems together - are the ones who balance speaking and listening evenly across the group.

As a leader you can create the conditions for this kind of balanced turn-taking by asking good questions: questions born in genuine curiosity and not in testing to see what people know. Good questions enable you to bring people in, colleagues you know have interesting perspectives but may have less confidence to speak up. Over time, well-placed questions invite people to feel more comfortable to take risks and offer up interesting, out-of-the-box, ideas.  

Listen authentically and attentively.

We think of psychological safety as the comfort to speak up, even when you know others disagree. But an equally important element of psychological safety is learning when to shut up and listen. Leaders and experts are most at risk of “knowing” an answer before fully weighing other points of view. But listening with humility - not listening to wait your turn to speak - creates the space to learn from the whole team, to weigh options you might not have considered. But most importantly, you model to the team that their ideas are worth hearing and their contributions have value.

Say thank you.  

In the Toyota Production System, one of the most successful manufacturing systems in the world, bringing up problems is sacrosanct. Every worker has both the responsibility and the obligation to identify problems when they see them - to stop the production line until the problems are addressed. In a rich protocol of next steps, the first requirement is to thank the person who surfaced the problem.

Every problem is an opportunity to learn and improve. A well-placed “thank you” shifts the discomfort of a difficult situation to an appreciated moment to innovate and grow. Every heartfelt moment of gratitude ensures the safety needed to surface the next problem.

We would never ask a professional sports team to play without practice. But we do this to business teams all the time. The practice drills your team needs to perform when it matters: continued attention to the skills of collaboration and the conditions for psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a long game. But it's also a critical attribute of inclusive, innovative and productive teams. As you onboard new team members and face new challenges - in the workplace and the world - only sustained practice will safeguard the investments you have made and ensure a solid team culture built on trust and respect.

Image Credit:
Gustavo Fring on
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