Have you ever experienced that another co-worker didn’t want to listen to your feedback, even though it would clearly improve their performance? Did an important project fail because an employee didn’t tell you about unresolved issues with a client? Perhaps it is a lack of psychological safety that hampers open communication with your team.
Research at Google showed that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from others and psychological safety is number one on that list. We’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and social standing. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it can be detrimental to effective teamwork. When team members feel psychologically safe, they are more willing to:
- Ask questions
- Experiment with new ideas
- Make mistakes
- Give an opinion
- Take a risk while learning
What is psychological safety?
Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999. She defines it as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Team members feel psychological safety, when they believe they can be honest, sincere and feel accepted. They don’t need to pretend to be someone they are not, to avoid damage to their image, status or career.
How does psychological safety influence the quality of teamwork?
When we don’t feel safe, we hesitate to admit mistakes or share doubts and the quality of our work is threatened. Let’s take a look at Pixar, which is a company that knows how to use feedback and criticism in a psychologically safe way. Co-founder, Ed Catmull, says, that at the beginning all Pixar animations are extremely bad. They get better and better over time due to the continuous stream of constructive feedback. The end result is a movie widely appreciated by critics and audiences.
Which factors most strongly influence psychological safety?
Findings described in a 2009 research paper titled Learning Behaviours in the Workplace: The Role of High-quality Interpersonal Relationships and Psychological Safety confirm that psychological safety is associated with high-quality relationships which are characterized by:
- high emotional carrying capacity,
- positive regard,
What exactly are those capacities and how can we use this knowledge in practice?
Emotional carrying capacity
When a relationship has high emotional carrying capacity, people can display a range of emotions and expect to be understood. This increases psychological safety, because people are less afraid to express negative emotions and therefore are more likely to speak up about emerging problems without fear of harmful reactions.
How can we increase emotional carrying capacity while talking to our co-workers?
- DO accept the emotions the other person is feeling. For example you can say: “I understand, that you are dealing with some difficult emotions right now…” or “It seems that this situation has made you sad”.
- DON’T deny the other person’s emotions. For example, if someone says: “I am angry.” Don’t reply: “You don’t have a reason to feel angry in this situation!”. We all perceive and interpret reality in a subjective way, so people can feel a whole different range of emotions.
- DO create a safe space for people to share their emotions. It is easier to deal with them, once you talk about them in an honest and safe way.
- DO find safe opportunities to share your own emotions.
Tensility allows the relationship to bend and withstand stress and conflict and bounce back after setbacks. Due to this capacity of high-quality relationships, psychological safety is reinforced and people tend to talk more freely and openly.
How can we enhance tensility while talking to our co-workers?
- DON’T jump to conclusions if you hear something that makes you feel anxious or angry DO ask questions to clarify what the other person really meant.
- DO paraphrase what the other person said to let them know you’re really listening and to make sure you understood them correctly.
- DO accept healthy disagreements — it’s useful to consider various ways of looking at the problem without seeing it as a threat.
Connectivity of a relationship captures the degree of openness to new ways of thinking and doing things. If there’s good connectivity in the relationship, people feel more comfortable to open themselves up to new approaches. Connectivity facilitates non-defensive reactions and encourages members to be open to and speak up about new challenges.
How can we enhance connectivity?
- DON’T be too rigid and judgemental, if you attack divergent ideas, people might be afraid to share their opinions with you.
- DON’T assume, that you are always correct and others are wrong or people won’t be willing to share their thoughts with you.
- DO find something to agree on.
- DO get curious and ask questions to find something useful for you and make the other person feel like you value their ideas (as long as you actually do).
Positive regard is a feeling of being known and respected by people around you. If you believe that others see you as competent, you don’t feel judged or monitored and you can share your viewpoints, without fear of harming your image. If people know that they are appreciated and valued, they feel a sense of social dignity, reinforcing their self-esteem and competence
How can we build positive regard?
- DO find opportunities to honsetly appreciate your co-workers. How often do you appreciate your co-workers or employees right now? How often do they appreciate something you did
- When thinking about something surprising someone did, DO ask yourself: What can I learn from that person?
Mutuality is a way of participating in a shared activity in which each person is involved as fully as possible.
How can we enhance mutuality?
- DO refer to a common goal. For example when you are giving feedback.
- Is there a balance in your relationship? Is there someone who is asking for more favors? DON’T let the other person feel used and DO protect yourself if you are the one feeling used.
Psychological safety – not as pleasant as it sounds
When we are thinking about the word ‘safety’, we might imagine sitting under a warm blanket with a mug of hot tea and a favorite book. We might imagine a situation when we are not threatened by anything and we don’t have to face any challenges.
The concept of psychological safety is not as pleasant. The aim is not to quietly work with your colleagues or a stress-free workplace. The aim is to be able to show your emotions (also the difficult ones), doubt if the existing solutions are optimal or fight for a common goal.
Psychological safety in your team
On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate the level of psychological safety on your team?
What would it mean for you and your team to increase that level?
Which one thing you can try this week to take a small step towards greater psychological safety and thus better communication, more engagement and better results?
Abraham Carmeli, Daphna Brueller and Jane Dutton (2009). Learning Behaviours in the Workplace: The Role of High-quality Interpersonal Relationships and Psychological Safety, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 26, 81-98.