Psychological Safety is a term we hear used a lot, but it can become a nominalisation unless we really unpick what it means in practice. Sometimes, just the idea of developing a culture based around psychological safety can feel overwhelming or simply too vague to get to grips with. What does it look like? Where do we start? Is it going to add to my workload? Is it really worth the effort?
Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up (1). It is about feeling able to be authentic without fear of negative consequences, knowing it is safe to take interpersonal risks, whilst remaining accepted and respected.
We are hard-wired to fear and avoid situations where people may not think well of us. If we are rejected by our peers, our emotional needs for security, connection, status, achievement, and control are threatened. So instead, we learn to manage our image. But that is a problem for companies wanting to be agile, learning organisations. If your employees are preoccupied with what people think about them instead of what they can offer, it stifles creativity and growth.
Let’s be clear; this is not about being nice to everyone all of the time. Instead, it means that teams embrace positive conflict where individuals speak up, knowing that their peers have their back and that everyone’s voice is important.
There are 4 stages to achieving psychological safety:
Inclusion safety – that satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong by being accepted for who you are
Learner safety – that makes it safe to engage in learning by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting and making mistakes
Contributor safety – that allows people to feel confident about the difference they can make by using their skills and contributing
Challenger safety – the ultimate level trust and respect, knowing their part in making things better by speaking up and challenging the status quo when you see an opportunity to change or improve it.
There is plenty of evidence to show that psychological safety is the most important factor in high-performing teams as they can benefit from diversity of thought and creativity. Yet, many people continue to feel afraid of speaking up, to voice concerns, to ask challenging questions and to suggest innovative ideas (which, by nature of their novelty, may fail).
A Gallup poll (2) in 2017 revealed that:
3 out of 10 employees strongly agreed their opinions count at work.
That is a worrying statistic when we know that employees who feel comfortable expressing themselves are more engaged. According to Gallup, if that ratio moved to 6 in 10 employees,
“organisations could realise a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.”
Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, has confirmed that psychological safety predicts quality improvements, learning behaviour and productivity. And Google’s own internal study found that people were more likely to stay with the company (4). If it’s not safe to engage, your company cannot innovate. Worse still, mistakes happen. The benefit of saying nothing tends to outweigh the benefit of speaking up. The cause of the Chernobyl disaster was in large part due to a lack of psychological safety resulting in operators not speaking up about their concerns (3).
A more recent survey from Catalyst in 2020 (5) showed the problem of people not speaking up worsening with remote working. Nearly half of female business leaders struggle to speak up in virtual meetings, with 42% of male business leaders agreeing with this observation). And 1 in 5 women report feeling overlooked or ignored in video meetings. This demonstrates a barrier to hearing innovative ideas, learning about concerns and being asked challenging questions. This undermines psychological safety.
Tips for Leaders
“Do you want people to ‘Play to win or play not to lose?'”
This is a question Amy Edmondson asks and it is an important one. Playing to win is to ‘go for it’ instead of prioritising keeping safe. This is about organizational culture and having a clear purpose that is achieved through shared values.
So, what can leaders do to promote such a culture?
- Make psychological safety a priority. Talk about it openly – what you are trying to achieve and why. Explore the best and worst teams that individuals have been part of and then consciously plan how your team is going to operate.
- Model it consistently. Demonstrate compassion, empathy and humility. Keep the focus on interpersonal relationships. Modelling has to start from a place of self-awareness to reduce the disconnect between how leaders see themselves and their team’s perceptions.
- Be curious, ask questions. Allow people to voice half-finished thoughts, to take risks outside the box, and to play ‘devil’s advocate’, in order to create a culture that truly innovates.
- Provide clarity about when you don’t want people to be creative or challenge; when you only want safe, tested ideas. Clarity around your expectations creates certainty and security for those around you.
- Facilitate everyone’s voice (including those from less vocal individuals, and those unable to achieve ‘airtime’ as easily as others, for example as outlined by Catalyst above). Recognise the courage to speak up and to be open-minded, to reinforce these behaviours.
- Agree how to challenge each other so that it feels safe. What is and isn’t ok to say? How should we share our concerns so that people feel safe and respected?
- Recognise failure as part of the learning, innovation journey and as such, encourage experimentation. Establish norms for how less-successful outcomes are handled – how mistakes are used to learn, reframing them as opportunities for growth instead of failure.
- Call out any behaviours that are not in line with your agreed cultural behaviours, including your own. Admitting that we will, at times, revert to old habits and use language that may not promote psychological safety, is an important part of the journey.
There are 4 questions that are powerful to create a culture of psychological safety (2), the answers providing a framework based on trust, value, purpose and identity, to which people can be accountable:
- What can we count on each other for (their strengths)?
- What is our team’s purpose?
- What is the reputation we aspire to have?
- What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfil our purpose?
Measuring Psychological Safety
Don’t forget to capture your progress and the impact your culture change has.
There are a number of ways to gather data, for example using Likert Scales or a series of questions to baseline and evaluate, or quadrant models to explore what the team looks like now, where it has been in the past, and where it is heading. The most effective approach is to use a measure that is personalised to capture your specific journey, so that you can identify the impact on your employees’ wellbeing, on staff retention and on productivity. Do reach out if you would like help developing this.
The most important thing to remember that this is not about being perfect. It is about having the right intention and making a conscious effort to achieve the culture needed for your employees to thrive. Employee experience is everything.
To explore any of these points further, or to discuss how to develop psychological safety within your own organisation, drop me a line. I’m always happy to have a conversation and point you in the right direction.
You may find these webinars about leading high performing, healthy teams, of interest too: