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Team Effectiveness

What You Should Know About Psychological Safety at Work


Does Your Team Feel Psychologically Safe?

You’ve just finished outlining your vision to the team for a new customer acquisition campaign. You pause, and then ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” Silence. Everyone is looking elsewhere. . . down at their phones, out the window . . . anywhere but at you.

When a scene like this unfolds, there may be a lack of psychological safety in the workplace. There are other signs as well. Psychological safety is more than just a nice-to-have in your workplaceit's been linked as a key component of highly engaged and productive teams and is becoming a non-negotiable for retaining talent.

What is psychological safety? Harvard Business School professor Dr. Amy Edmondson defines the term psychological safety as "a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves."

Even Reasonably Healthy Workplaces Can Be Not Psychologically Safe

No matter how well you think you are doing, all of us can do better. A few years ago, a Gallup survey of employees found that 30 percent strongly felt their opinions didn’t count in the workplace.* So this is clear: it's an issue that needs to be addressed right away if you want an engaged and productive team.

Gallup also noted that in a study conducted by Google, teams with high rates of psychological safety were better than other teams at showing high performance levels. And those high-performing teams were more likely to stay with the company.

Even if your team is working remotely full- or part-time, don’t assume that remote working alone makes employees feel psychologically safe. You can encourage (or discourage) psychological safety in a Zoom meeting just as easily as when you are face-to-face. It's when the team is interacting that this issue becomes highly important.

So how do you cultivate psychological safety in your workplace? Here are some ideas to get you started:

Set the stage with your own behavior as a leader

It is admittedly hard for most people, including executives and managers in a workplace, to show vulnerability. But this is exactly what sets the stage for others on the team to feel comfortable as well.

By modeling the behaviors you want to see, including empathy, you’ll find that others will follow your example.

Encourage everyone to speak up

It takes practice, but you can encourage everyone to speak up and then listen with empathy. Getting the team together and asking for diverse ideas that focus on performance is a good way to build this muscle.

By doing so, you can improve the feeling of security on your team and it can achieve the kind of behavior that leads to market breakthroughs.

Encourage innovation by making mistakes part of the process

As a team leader, practice sharing your own mistakes or failures and how you went about learning from those situations.

By allowing some exploration of creative solutions and letting team members take moderate risks that could lead to mistakes or failure, leaders can create an atmosphere of highly productive work.

As a leader, be open to feedback

Do your team members know that you are flexible in how you may approach a problem? Are they aware that you value their feedback?

As a leader, you can let your team know that you are confident in making a final decision. But, it is a positive sign if they feel that their feedback can make a difference in your thinking.

As we have discussed before, being open to both positive and negative feedback is a crucial skill for leaders to master. But what you may not consider is how important this skill is to creating a psychologically safe atmosphere for your team.

You could present a problem to a group and then offer various solutions. Encourage your team to chime in and offer their feedback on each solution . . . you may hear some ideas that you hadn’t considered before!

Embrace productive conflict

Conflict can be uncomfortable anywhere, including the workplace. But if it is handled well, conflict can contribute to your organizational success. Your team members need to feel free to speak up and express their disagreement with others in a respectful manner. Many people are not used to being candid with working peers, and it will be important to expect that transforming behaviors may take a while to achieve.

Psychological safety is part of the culture of an entire workplace, and not the responsibility of a single person. That said, the behavior you model as a leader goes a long way in creating the kind of transformation that makes organizations truly innovative. Be patient and proactive, knowing that as you consistently commit to incremental changes, you signal to your employees that you care about them and a psychologically safe workplace.


Photo by Cédric Stoecklin on Unsplash
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Amy Savage

Amy Savage is an expert at facilitating transformational leadership experiences and coaching leaders through a research-based framework that enables growth.