Feeling safe, secure, and being able to work without the fear of negative consequences, even when you make a mistake, is a sign that a Team is psychologically safe. These Teams in turn will then be able to innovate more creatively, produce better Products, and inspect and adapt better to our ever-changing environment.
A true Agile Team has psychological safety, and true Agile Leaders create and support this feeling within their Teams. We’ll walk you through the definition of psychological safety, how to foster it within your Team, and warning signs that your Team feels psychologically unsafe.
WHAT IS PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
The concept of psychological safety in the workplace was first identified by organizational behavioral scientist, Amy Edmondson in 1999 in her paper entitled “Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams.” Her research found that companies with a trusting workplace performed better.
“Feeling safe, secure and being able to work without the fear of negative consequences, even when you make a mistake, relies on feeling psychologically safe. It means people are comfortable being themselves. In psychologically safe workplaces, diversity is respected and personal risk-taking is encouraged. Above all, team members respect each other and feel accepted. The feeling is like taking a leap and knowing you’ll be caught.”
WHY IS PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY IMPORTANT IN THE WORKPLACE?
Psychological safety (or lack thereof) plays a major role in the success of a Team within an Organization. High-performing Teams demonstrate psychological safety with risk-taking, curiosity, respect, and vulnerability. Conversely, the opposite of psychological safety is psychological danger—when a Team is full of fear, blame, or an unwillingness to collaborate.
- Positive emotions increase confidence, creativity, trust, and productivity
- We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe
- Increases solution-finding, divergent thinking, and the cognitive process underlying creativity
- Without it, we impede the ability of the Team to think strategically, collaborate, ideate (share ideas)
HOW TO BUILD PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Here are some ways to guarantee psychological safety in your workplace.
Make Safety a Prerequisite
Safety is both a basic human need and a key to unlocking high performance. We actively make safety a prerequisite by establishing rules before engaging in any hazardous work. We protect people’s time, information, reputation, money, health, and relationships. And we endeavor to make our collaborations, products and services resilient and safe.
GET THE BASICS RIGHT
This is about management, structure, and clarity. Ensure that people know what to do when they sit at their desks in the morning (or whenever and wherever they start work). Team members must know what their priorities are.
BREAK THE GOLDEN RULE
Don’t treat other people the way you want to be treated—they’re not you. Treat your Team Members the way they want to be treated. An effective Agile Leader gets to know their Team Members on a deep and personal level and recognizes that people change over time. Use this knowledge to work with your Team Members in the way they prefer.
BE INCLUSIVE IN DECISION MAKING
Allow Teams to contribute to decisions that affect them. This doesn’t mean that every decision requires consensus, simply that people must feel that their voice has been heard and considered. Particularly in remote and distributed Teams, it’s easy to miss someone disengaging from the Team or conversation. Everyone on the Team needs to contribute. Be actively inclusive.
DEFINE TEAM VALUES AND BEHAVIORS
Team Members must know what’s expected of them, and what the common values held by the Team are. It’s important to translate values, such as “commitment,” into behaviors, such as “following through on promises.” This ensures that a common set of expectations is shared across the Team, and Team Members can depend on and trust each other.
Take every opportunity to examine how to improve individually and as a Team. That often means holding retrospectives after an incident or failure. If a mistake by a Team Member is discovered or admitted, thank them for their honesty, and find ways to prevent it from happening or mitigate the impact of it. If someone is blamed for a mistake, the psychological safety of the whole Team will suffer, and subsequent retrospectives will be far less successful.
ADMIT FAULT FIRST
One of the key points of psychological safety is about being able to admit mistakes and be vulnerable. As an Agile Leader, it’s important to model this behavior by doing so yourself. By admitting fault, you’re not only modeling and making it acceptable for Team Members to admit mistakes, but if they admire you as a strong Leader, they’ll actually want to think of mistakes that they can admit to in order to emulate your behavior.
INVITE FEEDBACK (OR ADVICE!)
As an Agile Leader, you must be open to feedback from your Team Members and peers. However, it’s also necessary to remember that feedback must be constructive, positive, contextual, and delivered with good intent. Reframing “feedback” as “advice” is a good first step. Discuss with your Team Members how feedback (advice) should be provided, and state explicitly that not all feedback has to be taken on or acted upon since the person providing it only sees the external “you”—not the real you.
SHOW VULNERABILITY AND EMOTION
Showing vulnerability and emotion is a fundamental aspect of psychological safety. As a Leader, it is unfair to expect your Team Members to show vulnerability and emotion if you do not do so yourself.
BE FIRM WITH NEGATIVE BEHAVIORS
While it’s important to assume the best of everyone on the Team, sometimes Team Members may behave in ways that are detrimental to the Team culture, dynamic, or Organization’s performance, intentionally or not.
PROVIDE FINANCIAL AND JOB SECURITY
It’s possible that you may not have control over these factors. Even if you don’t, it’s important to be aware of how they impact psychological safety. Financial security allows people to focus. By not being overly worried about finances, whether it’s how they’re going to pay the rent, or whether they can afford a holiday this year, people can focus on delivering great value to the Organization.
ENCOURAGE RADICAL CANDOR
This is a new management philosophy based on two approaches—caring personally and challenging directly. The radical candor framework is used to guide conversations and not fall into the trap of supporting behaviors that are damaging to Teams.
People don’t always agree with each other, but discussion is vitally important in business. Encouraging mutual respect helps to improve communication and reduce workplace conflict and stress. Reducing pettiness in the workplace and encouraging respect helps to build psychological safety. The best way to promote respect at work is to ‘walk the walk.’
Part of psychological safety is being able to express oneself. Encouraging the Team to be curious and ask questions is where real learning happens. Ask for feedback from employees and encourage them to ask questions. Start by asking ‘What can we do better?’
ACKNOWLEDGE IDEAS AND THE SHARING OF MISTAKES
Things do not always go to plan and making mistakes does not mean you are a failure. Mistakes offer helpful learnings and are often the source of major innovations in business. In psychologically safe environments, employees feel they can make a mistake and won’t be penalized for it.
What is PSYCHOLOGICAL DANGER
After reading about all the benefits of having a psychologically safe Team, it’s evident that this is what you want your Team to look like? But are you familiar with the signs that your Team is not only not feeling safe, but they’re in psychological danger?
With psychological danger, we have fear, blame, and unwillingness to share or collaborate. This ultimately leads to the Common Knowledge Effect, where we all think alike, don’t challenge the norm, aren’t creative, and have no ideation.
With psychological safety, it is the opposite—we have comfort, we learn, and we openly share, which all drives better decisions and innovation.
SIGNS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DANGER
Being wrong is avoided like the plague
- Admitting you are wrong can have a disastrous effect on the way others perceive you.
- Challenging a co-worker or superior on their ideas and pointing out when they may be wrong.
Fostering a healthy culture of debate within the team can be a way to make “being wrong” OK. One way to do this is formally appointing roles within the team, such as a devil’s advocate.
Blame is more important than gratitude
- It is important for managers and team members to be able to hold one another accountable for results and behaviors.
- However, this can easily become confused with blame, particularly in the wake of failure.
In contrast to focusing on blame, psychologically-safe environments embrace mistakes and treat failure as learning. One surprising way to do this is for managers to show gratitude for the work and effort invested, regardless of a negative outcome.
Outlying views are ignored
- When team members observe that outlying views are regularly dismissed, they are less likely to share ideas or knowledge that stray from what the rest of the group knows.
- This is another symptom of the Common Knowledge Effect.
One way managers can work around this is by actively listening for outlying or contrarian views and rewarding them. Even if the idea is not perfect, acknowledging it and demonstrating genuine interest in understanding its merits demonstrates to the rest of the group that uncommon knowledge is welcome and valued.
SIGNS YOUR ORGANIZATION HAS LOW PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
- Team Members don’t ask many questions during meetings
- Team Members don’t feel comfortable owning up to mistakes or place blame on others when mistakes are made
- The Team avoids difficult conversations and hot-button topics
- Executives and Team Leaders tend to dominate meeting discussions
- Feedback is not frequently given or requested
- Team Members don’t often venture outside of their job descriptions to support other Team Members
- Team Members don’t ask one another for help when they need it
- There are hardly any disagreements or differing points of view
- Team Members don’t know one another personally, just professionally
- Humiliation, blame, criticism, and bullying create workplaces where Team Members are filled with fear
- Teams spend needless amounts of time watching their own backs
- Teams are frightened of putting a foot wrong to make suggestions and help each other out
- The Team shuts down
- Increased stress due to lack of trust, respect, or conflict
When we feel stressed, our brain triggers hormones to support a fight-or-flight response. Continually being in that state is bad for our health and also stifles creativity and teamwork. If you want to learn more about the signs and impact of psychological safety in the workplace, watch our webinar here.