December 1, 2020

Psychological Safety: Practice Matters

The term “psychological safety” may be buzzy, but it’s no buzzword. Collaborative, inclusive and productive organizational cultures require psychological safety. But building and maintaining true psychological safety takes both time and practice.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is the “shared belief” that a team or a group is “safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Reintroduced (although coined years earlier) in the academic literature by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety enables candor, trust and mutual respect, and invites the full power of human ability to tackle workplace challenges.

In psychologically safe environments, we give each other the benefit of the doubt and we are fully able to learn together – from each other and from our mistakes.

But it’s the absence of psychological safety that underscores its importance: in organizations or teams that motivate with fear, growth and collaboration simply stop. In her newest book, The Fearless Organization, Edmondson reminds us that fear consumes physiological resources and diverts them from the stuff of productive work:  “How psychologically safe a person feels strongly shapes the propensity to engage in learning behaviors, such as information sharing, asking for help or experimenting.”

In short, if we don’t feel safe, we don’t learn. If we don’t learn, we don’t grow. So what do we need to know to build and protect psychological safety in our own organizations?

How to Build and Protect Psychological Safety

First, psychological safety is not a leadership training opportunity.
Yes, leadership is critical: without leadership support and role modeling, psychological safety will be dead on arrival. But psychological safety thrives in an organization’s local “microclimates” – within teams or working groups at every level of the organization. We must afford employees and their immediate leaders, regardless of role, the opportunity to build those tacit and shared beliefs that they have each other’s backs.

Second, we must puncture cultures of silence.
Healthy and safe environments require us to speak up when we see something awry, even when that means skipping hierarchies to raise the alarm. In story after story, Edmondson illustrates the dire consequences associated with not speaking up. Well-publicized plane crashes, unnecessary patient deaths, even the massive failure of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in 2011, demonstrate that no industry is protected from unhealthy silence.

But strongly hierarchical cultures inhibit speaking up. In fact, as Edmondson notes, a culture of silence is “based on the assumption that most people’s voices do not offer value and thus will not be valued.” If we do not believe that our voices are valued, then we cannot assume they will be heard.

We must start by listening – inviting colleagues whose voices have not historically been heard to bring their expertise, their point of view. We must be willing to acknowledge that someone lower in the hierarchy may have answers we do not have.

Third, psychological safety is a human phenomenon, born in and nurtured by the quality of our workplace relationships.
Psychological safety is not about being nice, it’s about being honest – even when the message is tough. Only high quality connections have the mutual respect, emotional carrying capacity and trust to withstand the pressure created by open and candid debate. But having a friend at work is not enough: psychological safety is a group level condition. True familiarity, and the depth of real connection creates the necessary foundation of psychological safety not only between individuals but among groups of colleagues.

Finally, psychological safety takes practice.
Lots of practice. At work, individuals rarely seek to appear uninformed, incompetent or disruptive. In precarious cultures, we prevent these outcomes by refraining from asking questions, admitting mistakes or making unsolicited suggestions. Changing these self-protective behaviors takes time and the comfort that it’s safe to take these risks.

Reflection Point creates the conditions to practice psychological safety.

These low-risk conversations, grounded in story, invite us to examine the paradigms and perspectives developed by our life experiences, education and upbringing. Together, colleagues develop the interpersonal familiarity to be themselves, and to speak their truth. Most importantly, and by their own reporting, the program markedly strengthens statistically validated indicators of psychological safety among our participants: the comfort to take a risk, to speak up and to communicate their opinions even where they know that others will disagree.

The research is clear: psychological safety is the most important attribute of high performing teams. But we don’t really need research to know that psychologically safe teams are where we feel most engaged and energized.  If we can create the conditions to invite all voices to the table, to make room for expertise and insight regardless of source, we will have healthier, more inclusive, organizational cultures too. With the promise of such valuable outcomes, can we really afford not to take the time to practice psychological safety?

Image Credit:
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, via WikiArt
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