Man and woman enjoying a climate of psychological safety in their team

By Nils Reisen | 5 minutes reading time

Psychological safety is a crucial driver for high performing teams. This article shows you why this is the case and provides expert advice on how you can increase your team’s psychological safety.

We recently had a team workshop to kick off the new year. As always, we started with a check-in. Check-ins help us to get our heads free for the meeting and are usually great fun. This time, however, the check-ins were rather gloomy. The team had just come back from a rather unusual Christmas break, and everyone had realised that this new year would hardly start any better than the last one had ended.

We were sharing our discontent quite frankly. “What a horrible start into this important meeting,” you might think. Quite to the contrary! Why? Because everyone shared their true feelings without any fear of negative consequences. This demonstrated how far we had come as a team. We had achieved to create a psychologically safe environment where we could speak our mind openly.

As has been shown many times (see below), psychological safety is a key driver of team performance, and I have experienced its importance many times in my career.

Psychological safety is not a new concept

The concept of psychological safety is not exactly new. It was coined back in 1965 by Warren Bennis and Edgar Schein and made popular in the 1990s by William Kahn (the “father of employee engagement”) and Amy Edmondson (the“mother of psychological safety”).

As is so often the case, concepts that are compatible with our human nature stand the test of time. I regularly talk to my father in law who used to be a manager at a large company in Mexico. Although he is from an entirely different generation and culture, his leadership advice could just as well be taken from the newest books you can find on the topic.

Similarly, Brazilian CEO Ricardo Semler radically transformed his father’s company by introducing many of the principles put forward today by the advocates of “New Work”. He did that almost 40 years ago.

Psychological safety is a key driver of team performance

Today, there’s no doubt that psychological safety matters. Google found it to be a key driver of team performance, and its influence in many diverse areas such as

  • hiring,
  • infection control in hospitals or
  • school violence

is well documented (e.g. Clark, 2020).

Psychological safety describes a workplace climate characterised by mutual respect and interpersonal trust.

Establishing psychological safety at the workplace has a proven positive impact on employee engagement, creativity and innovation, error reporting and knowledge sharing (Edmondson, 2018). So what is psychological safety? And what can you do to increase it at your workplace?

Psychological safety is rather an exception than the norm

Amy Edmondson (1999) defines psychological safety as

“a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

In other words, psychological safety describes a workplace climate characterised by mutual respect and interpersonal trust that enables team members to “feel

  1. included,
  2. safe to learn,
  3. safe to contribute, and
  4. safe to challenge the status quo

– all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised, or punished in some way” (Clark, 2020).

While that sounds great and logical, psychological safety still seems to be the exception rather than the norm. According to Gallup data (Gallup, 2017), only 30% of US employees think that their opinions seem to count. Given that psychological safety directly impacts the bottom-line (Edmondson, 2018), it makes much sense for companies to pay attention to this topic.


How can you create psychological safety at the workplace?

Especially today, in the midst of a global pandemic, psychological safety is crucial to ensure that teams can stay productive. In a recent interview, Amy Edmondson explains what managers can do to create psychological safety. Here is a summary, including a few insights from our own experience.

1. Be clear about what you are up against

Describe the uncertainty and complexity that you face, set the stage for why you might need employees‘ voice.

Don't forget: Anyone could spot something that others miss.

2. Be proactive and invite voice

Ask employees what’s on their mind, what they are seeing, what their concerns are. Make it difficult for people to remain silent. Face-to-face conversations are essential.

Tip: You can easily trigger them by running short surveys and discussing the results with your team.

3. Don’t shoot the messenger

Respond in a forward-looking, appreciative way to feedback, ideas or bad news. Sometimes it’s hard to process them fully in the heat of the action.

Tip: We’ve found that it can help if you simply say “thank you” and then take the time you need to wrap your head around what you just learnt.

4. Talk about your mistakes

Being open and honest about one’s mistakes makes it safe for others to do the same. You’ve probably heard about “fuck-up nights” and similar events that are becoming increasingly popular.

Don't forget: Living an error culture starts small – with yourself.

5. Use tools to overcome the challenges of remote working

Giving spontaneous feedback or bringing up unpleasant topics is much harder in an online setting. That will probably never change, but you can still use technology to your advantage.

Tips: There are plenty of platforms that allow you to use votes, polls and comments to make it easier for people to give feedback in an online setting.

In the end, it comes down to being open and honest, trusting your co-workers and inviting them to co-create your everyday work.

Bottom Line

Creating a climate of psychological safety will have a dramatic impact on the performance of your team and company – and it is surprisingly straightforward. In the end, it comes down to being open and honest, trusting your co-workers and inviting them to co-create your everyday work.

And what happened in the workshop I mentioned in the beginning? Our mood quickly turned positive, and we left the meeting brimming with enthusiasm for the road that lay ahead of us.

Get in touch if you would like to learn more about how you can promote psychological safety within your workplace.

References

Clark, T. (2020). The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Gallup (2017). State of the American workplace report. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times. Publisher's Version.

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