A 2017 Gallup report concluded that only three in 10 U.S. workers think their opinions count when they’re at work, which is a pretty damning statistic in anybody’s money. Raise that level of satisfaction to six in 10 workers, though, and employee turnover reduces by 27%, safety issues reduce by 40% and productivity increases by as much as 12%. Not only that, but quality improves and creativity and learning ability are increased, so there’s clearly something we need to pay attention to here and that thing is psychological safety … interpersonal trust.

What is Psychological Safety?

Harvard professor Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in 1999 and says it’s about team members having “…a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” Put another way, it’s about creating “…a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves”.  

Translated into actual workplace behaviours, it means that people voice their concerns without fear when they’re uncertain or doubtful; that they offer thoughts, suggestions and ideas that aren’t fully formed or may even sound silly; that they feel safe enough to say without hesitation when they’ve made a mistake; that they feel secure enough to admit when they’re struggling and could do with some support. 

A real-world example worth reflecting on occurred back in 2007 during the Oxford Cambridge Men’s Boat Race. As in every other year, the Cambridge team was selected according to who the fastest rowers were. This year, however, five of the team’s senior rowers mutinied and demanded that the selectors replace team member Colin Scott with Dan O’Shaughnessy, an unquestionably slower rower. They did this because they felt Scott disrupted team harmony, whereas O’Shaughnessy helped create a more relaxed atmosphere. In a crew of big egos and superb athletes with different rowing styles, trying to find the best way to row together meant that someone who helped unify the team was a bigger asset than someone who could row fast but unsettled the team. The selectors were deeply unhappy but complied with the rowers’ demand and O’Shaughnessy sheepishly took his friend’s place. Justifying the change, the boat duly went faster with O’Shaughnessy in it and Cambridge went on to win the race by one-and-a-quarter lengths.

Ways to build Psychological Safety within a team.

Psychological safety and high levels of interpersonal trust, then, clearly have a very real and measurable impact on team results. So, what can leaders do to help create an atmosphere of psychological safety within their teams?

Lead by example.

The leader of the team sets the culture of the team and what’s important to the leader becomes important to the team. First among all things – lead by example.

Acknowledge your own fallibility and vulnerability.

Make sure everyone knows it’s ok to make mistakes and that no-one – you included – knows all the answers. It’s a no-brainer really. If mistakes are frowned upon, punished or work against us in the long run, then they’ll be stigmatised, hushed up or blamed on others. Making it ok to acknowledge and flag mistakes is quite different, however, to accepting poor quality or performance. By destigmatising the reality of human error, rather than accepting consistent poor performance and lack of accountability, we encourage people to learn from their and one another’s mistakes and use them to positively improve quality and performance. Toyota have done this very publicly and to great effect for decades. Every Toyota production line has an Andon Cord, which enables any employee to immediately halt production if they spot an error, so it can be fixed on the spot before further damage or compromise to quality can result. No-one has any interest in blaming anyone for errors – the emphasis is fairly and squarely placed on spotting problems, fixing them, learning from them and moving on.

Encourage the team to ask for help, clarification, feedback or a second opinion.

Make feedback just one more vital and welcome part of the process, not something that happens a few times a year or when someone wants to give you a kicking. Asking for support and trusting that others mean well and are being helpful rather than critical, means feedback is much more likely to be received in a positive way. Similarly, encourage the team to actively seek out second opinions on matters they’re unsure about.

Make sure everyone knows they have a place at the table.

Ensure team meetings are equitable affairs in which everyone plays a significant part and feels valued for the contribution they make. Listen out for suggestions, ideas and opinions being consciously or unconsciously blanked, dismissed out of hand or talked down without due consideration. Encourage more Extraverted members to talk less and leave space in the conversation for others, and encourage more Introverted team members to open up and commit to the conversation without being 100% certain of what they want to say. 

Nothing is off the table.

Not all ideas turn out to be good ideas, but if people are to feel relaxed and confident about contributing, stretching and experimenting, then no idea should be dismissed as a stupid idea. During the early creative stages of a new film, Pixar openly acknowledge, accept and positively expect that much of the work they do will be poor – dreadful, even! To them, this is an inevitable part of birthing and refining ideas through to a successful conclusion. Likewise, anyone who’s listened to recordings of the Beatles working on a new song will know there’s a vast difference between the first germ of an idea they come up with and the polished finished product.

Reinforce respectful team etiquette.

Watch out for eyes rolling or blank looks of disinterest when others are speaking; watch out for playful banter being a passive-aggressive way of closing people down or being dismissive of ideas; emailing and checking messages during meetings should generally be a no-no.

Help people get to know one another on a personal level.

This might be about a night out now and again or taking on a Good Citizenship project that gives the team a chance to informally connect and see one another in a different light. Alternatively, follow Israeli biologist Uri Alon’s lead; he allocates a full half hour of each two-hour weekly team meeting, so colleagues can chat about what they’ve been up to outside of work or how things are going for team members who might be sick or on maternity leave. This all helps the team to bond, despite them spending much of their time working remotely from one another in their labs.

Even taken together, these seven steps are not the whole story about creating a psychologically safe team, but each step carries us closer to that end point. In our next blog, we’ll expand on these ideas and explore how they help teams engage in robust discussion – healthy conflict if you will. To quote Mark de Rond, “We need to feel psychologically safe before conflicting opinions can be aired and the benefits of diversity can be exploited.” Wise words indeed.

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