Consider a group with which you are affiliated. Your workplace, family, or some other organization. Consider the following questions:
- Can you express concerns and contentious subjects?
- Is it safe to take chances?
- Do you feel your distinctive talents and skills are appreciated and put to use?
The following are some questions derived from Amy Edmondson’s groundbreaking research into psychological safety, and they should serve as a warning that employees may not feel safe enough to take chances, offer criticism, or present themselves honestly and fully in your company.
What is psychological safety?
After completing her doctoral program, Edmondson made insight while studying. Hospitals with a higher psychological safety had more errors but not because they committed more mistakes.
Rather, they felt comfortable enough to report errors. Mistakes were seen as part of the learning process in groups that had greater psychological safety.
Those hospitals lacking in psychological security, on the other hand, saw mistakes as an attack on the competence of their colleagues.
Feeling your organization’s culture is safe enough to speak up, take chances, and be honest with each other isn’t just nice to have. It has directly resulted in increased profits for Deloitte since they started practicing psychological safety.
How? It begins with creating a sense of community where it’s okay to say “we screwed up” versus “you screwed up”. This sense of shared accountability will encourage people to take greater risks and innovate together.
When employees don’t feel their mistakes will result in others pointing fingers at them, they are more likely to come together instead of pulling apart into silos where information is hoarded or competition between colleagues takes place.
What exactly does psychological safety entail
According to Edmondson, psychological safety is “the degree to which members of a team trust each other enough to take risks.” Consider those three initial questions again.
Are team members free to raise concerns and issues? Are they willing to take chances and use their special talents and abilities? We’re dealing with an organization full of psychological safety when all of those questions can be answered with a resounding “yes.”
What are the benefits of psychological safety?
The business case for psychological safety is strong. Without it, employees fear speaking up and taking chances on innovation.
By establishing a culture where mistakes aren’t seen as threats to personal reputation or group status, employees feel comfortable enough to offer advice and criticism.
Edmondson is quick to point out that psychological safety is not about being nice or conflict-free.
It’s actually the opposite: “it’s about creating a culture in which people feel safe and confident and even eager to tell you when they’re worried or mad… where we challenge one another into new ideas that we’ve never even thought of before.”
Side effects of psychological safety include increased creativity, trust, respect for others’ feelings and emotions, collaboration, team performance, employee retention, fewer errors in the workplace, less workplace stress, higher profits, reduced accidents, greater job satisfaction… and that’s just a few!
Psychological safety is worth establishing in your organization’s culture. The benefits are too great to ignore.
In the end, the only real question is: How do we build a sense of psychological safety in our company?
It’s not always pleasant or means
NASA‘s Treatment of Astronauts is a great illustration of psychological isolation. Some persons were aware of the faulty O-ring’s potential to cause the shuttle to explode, yet they kept quiet or were ignored.
This instance hits at the core of psychological safety. It’s apparent that when bosses respond to criticism or mistakes with anger or annoyance, people will be more afraid to speak up.
They’ll try to cover up their mistakes and keep quiet about fears they may have. This negatively affects teamwork and collaboration within the team, and these important skills help drive and maintain a high-performance organization.
However, it must be acknowledged that psychological safety cannot thrive in places where people are attempting to be polite. People must be ready and able to protest if necessary.
They need to feel that their concerns and ideas will be heard and respected, even if they’re initially wrong. The best way for businesses to handle this is by modeling the behavior we want from employees: kindness and respect when someone raises a concern or points out a problem, but also honest feedback on how you might have responded differently.
Reinforce that it’s ok to make mistakes and that you’ll support them when they need it most.
What Can Groups Do to Increase Psychological Safety?
In her book The Fearless Organization, Edmondson outlines three ways to create psychological safety in your organization:
1. Make everyone on the same page.
The first step is to highlight how psychological safety improves group performance. Remember that it results in fewer errors and a higher-quality end product.
Give some background on psychological safety. It’s not about being polite or agreeing with everything everyone says. It’s all about holding people accountable and assisting one another reach their full potential.
So what exactly does a team need in order to establish the sense of psychological safety necessary for optimal performance?
A supportive, inclusive environment. It’s much more fun and much less risky to succeed when your goals are shared with others. When you have a group of people who buy into one another’s goals and beliefs, they become a team.
When people are not on the same page, there is a lack of shared goals and beliefs that will hold everyone accountable to one another.
This isn’t a safe environment for anyone—it’s much too risky to take a chance, make a mistake, or question the status quo.
2. Make sure to ask questions.
Allow others to know that you’re walking the walk by asking a lot of questions and listening to comments. Ask them how they would make things better.
Don’t pretend to have all the answers, rather, create systems that encourage and solicit everyone’s help. I discuss this at great length in my professional life when it comes to shifting our attention away from performance reviews and onto learning conversations.
The only problem is that most of us don’t ask or listen very well!
In a study on question asking, researchers found that if you ask more questions, the team will be smarter and all members will have a better chance of understanding group dynamics.
It’s a sort of “putting yourself in their shoes” exercise, which helps create greater empathy within the group. The study showed that high-performing groups asked 2/3 more questions than the average group.
In a workplace with psychological safety, asking questions is both encouraged and expected. You can achieve this by providing employees with a safe environment where they feel comfortable to ask questions and make mistakes without fear of blame or repercussion.
Try creating an open-ended culture by encouraging curiosity and taking away judgment for errors by providing immediate feedback.
3. Reward and Modeling
Now it’s time to show your teammates’ psychological safety. Show them the type of psychological safety you desire to see more of. Encourage people to question your ideas and then thank them for doing so.
Don’t be defensive, rather, make room for their input by integrating it into useful applications.
When you do this, it will increase the overall trust and respect among your team. This is a great opportunity to say “I was wrong”. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we didn’t heed the advice of others and then ended up making a mistake or performing poorly as a result.
Just like you would with any friend, thank them for their attempt to help, even if your decision doesn’t work out in the end.
Fighting the Urge to Keep Quiet
Groups don’t typically have psychological security. When our preconceived ideas about organizational hierarchies prevent us from speaking up, as Edmondson explains, it can keep us quiet even when the group would be better off hearing our ideas.
That’s why groups must take steps to combat their natural tendency towards silence. The ultimate objective is for employees to feel comfortable knowing that it’s okay to speak up and ask questions in order to help reach a better outcome.
When employees feel like they can’t share their ideas, the team becomes less intelligent and the group doesn’t perform as well. This happens when one person assumes everyone else knows what they know–which is rarely true! It also occurs when people think that others will get upset if they disagree, so it’s better to keep quiet.
It’s not a simple process, but it’s critical to promote psychological safety if we want team members to fully participate and express their real selves.
The bottom line
Building a sense of psychological safety can be difficult, yet it’s worth the effort. One of the most beneficial things you can do for your organization is to encourage people to speak up when they are nervous or afraid about something.
Asking for feedback is also an important step towards establishing psychological safety.
By listening without judgment and responding with curiosity, you increase the chances that your employees will reach out again in the future.
If you are interested in learning more about building psychological safety within your organization, be sure to check out my book Positive Deviance at Work.