Successful Teams Practice Psychological Safety

by Diana Bailey - May 22, 2019

Have you put the research and effort into providing a vibrant benefits package, but just can’t shake the feeling your teams aren’t operating at a hundred percent? If so, psychological safety might be your missing link.

Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, literally wrote the book on psychological safety. In The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth, she defines Psychological Safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with questions, comments, concerns, or mistakes.” It may seem obvious, but it is truly impressive to see the effectiveness of psychological safety in action: A few years ago, Google brought the idea back into vogue by publishing findings from “Project Aristotle”, their two-year-long, in-depth study of what makes a great team, and what makes a great team work together. Some of their findings—that structure and clarity, for instance, help to keep a team focused—aren’t so shocking. But, it was Edmondson’s concept of psychological safety that stood out as the single most important factor in building a productive team.

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A healthy, engaged workforce is one in which employees feel empowered, and nothing is more disempowering than fear. According to the organization Great Place To Work, teams exhibiting strong psychological safety are ten times more likely to work effectively together than those motivated by all other incentives combined, including bonuses and other compensation. What does this mean for you? If you want to build teams that accomplish their goals, the single most important thing you can do for them is to create a work environment where they feel free to ask questions, raise concerns, and are unafraid of reprisal for honest mistakes.

“But for jobs where learning or collaboration is required for success, fear is not an effective motivator.” “Hierarchy (or, more specifically, the fear it creates when not handled well) reduces psychological safety.” —Amy Edmondson

A psychologically safe team is in a constant state of brainstorming, simply by virtue of its members feeling empowered to do so. By entering the workplace every day feeling at-ease and able to fully express their ideas and opinions, they are free to confront challenges as soon as they arise, ask embarrassing questions, and constantly think outside the box without being viewed as “spacey.” All of this sounds great in theory, of course, but it isn’t easy to engineer this kind of trust. As you can imagine, few adults will instinctively feel this comfortable with a group of relative strangers, and letting a team work closely together for as long it takes to feel comfortable around one another is hardly an effective time commitment.

So, what are some of the shortcuts you can take to help establish a psychologically safe work environment from the ground up? We thought you’d never ask! What follows are some ideas for doing just that, though they are always opportunities to try other initiatives. For more strategies that can help communicate psychological safety to your employees, take a look at our tips on stopping micromanagement before it’s too late, relieving workplace stress, and improving general wellbeing. All are effective at helping to improve emotional safety in the workplace and employee engagement overall.

Tips for building a psychologically safe workplace:

employee alone in the office sunlight

Strengthen communication

Begin by acknowledging your own limitations and urging team members to communicate with you in order to help. When you tell your team, “Come to me with anything you think I may have missed,” you’re letting everyone know that you don’t consider yourself infallible and that you value their input. Just as importantly, acknowledge those who take risks, quickly and decisively, showing your employees that you place a high price on calculated risk-taking. Lastly, eliminate negativity: during meetings, in Slack messages, and wherever else it’s necessary, be quick to intercept and politely refute negative remarks. When you hear “that won’t work” given as an immediate response to an idea, jump in with a friendly reminder that you appreciate their willingness to share, e.g. “maybe not this time, but good thinking though, Adam!” Doing so will help to subtly tell employees to ditch the negativity and encourage one another instead.

Treat people as individuals

Who do you feel more comfortable being around: your friends and family or your coworkers? Easy answer, right? But think about it—the reason you feel relaxed around these people is rooted in how well you know them. Shouldn’t the same be true of great teammates? Instead of operating by the golden rule of treating everyone equally, it’s more effective to get to know people’s individual quirks and preferences. In doing so, we can treat them how they would prefer to be treated, rather than make an assumption based on our own feelings. So, take the time to survey your team.

Ask them their thoughts on team topics like how they like to receive bad news, communication frequency, what types of tasks they find themselves to be most effective at, and how they prefer to focus on work. By knowing these things about your team, and helping team members share their preferences with each other, you are coming at the issue of psychological safety from two sides: making them feel heard while also setting individual standards for how everyone operates most effectively.

Eliminate extremes

Work is stressful at times. It’s inevitable. But if you were to ask people why work is stressful, and what specific situations cause stress, you’d likely get a lot of the same answers. This begs the question: if we can identify stressors so easily, why aren’t we doing anything to alleviate them? Work isn’t a life-or-death scenario, so why do we so often privately treat every stressful situation with such severity? A work environment that operates at a zero-to-sixty pace is inherently unhealthy, so it behooves us to provide some context and a sense of scale. By communicating to employees specifically what does and doesn’t constitute an emergency, you can prove to them that your workplace has emotional grey areas that they needn’t fear, and that there are less-than-ideal work scenarios that can be dealt with without panicking.

It can help to begin this process by communicating to team members that you’re interested in common scenarios—not causes, necessarily, but just situations—in which they feel stressed. Assure them that there are no wrong answers. Meet and discuss these as a group. While it’s important to not belittle individual causes of stress, by airing them you’ll be giving them some context. Your employees will see that those bosses and coworkers who depend on them have problems of their own and aren’t necessarily hanging on their every action.

Furthermore, openly communicate with your employees about your own feelings on what does and doesn’t constitute an emergency. That way, they can both learn about your priorities and see that you have stressors, too. Moving forward, consider adopting a numbered approach to task management, wherein team members attach a point value to tasks they’re working on or assigning to others. The higher the number, the more urgent the results. By doing so, teams can more easily rank, allocate, and plan projects, rather than mentally adding up everything on their plate and losing sleep over the sum of it all.

Promote upward feedback

Obstacles to upward communication are outdated. Instead of a tangled organizational chart outlining the hoops that employees should jump through in order to be heard by their superiors, adopt flat-hierarchy principles that allow for open communication, preferably across multiple channels. By lowering the price of communication, employees will feel empowered to be more creative and more secure in receiving direct credit for their awesome ideas. They’ll also feel more free to air grievances, making them feel valued, safe, and secure.

Display curiosity

The only stupid questions are those that go unasked. Create an atmosphere wherein employees feel secure by being the guinea pig: be the first to ask questions during meetings, even if it’s just to clarify something you feel others might not understand. Team members will follow suit. It sounds simple, but fostering a creative environment in these minor ways can help your staff’s innovative spirit to grow exponentially.

Trust.

Just as important as curiosity is rewarding vulnerability amongst team members. Teammates who trust one another will feel comfortable being themselves, proposing new ideas, asking questions, and sharing information, thereby igniting creativity within your organization. Trust is the glue that binds a team together, and taking steps to improve it—by using games and activities to create bonds and allow employees to display their strengths, for instance—can dramatically improve employees’ sense of psychological safety.



Psychological safety frees up your employees mental capacity to create, explore, and innovate. The energy that employees put into trying to interpret social cues, anticipate emotional reactions, and minimize embarrassment could be better spent in solving business problems. Giving employees the space to speak plainly about their work, and how they want to finish it, takes away the stigma of emotionality in the workplace, and instead treats everyday frustrations as something that is surmountable. Rather than some soft approach to dealing with employees’ feelings, a commitment to psychological safety in the workplace is simply an acknowledgment that your employees have feelings and that no one, least of all them, wants them to get in the way of creating the best work they can.

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