Psychological safety was coined in 1965 by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis and has since been advanced rather famously by Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School. That said, it didn’t become part of the business leaders’ lexicon until Google identified it as critical to high-performing teams as part of its Project Aristotle.
Understanding the value (in theory) of psychological safety for a team is one thing. Embracing it and recognizing what it takes to leverage it and keep it is quite another. Based on what I’ve learned during the workshops I lead for CEO peer groups and cross-functional work teams, it’s a combination of how employees choose to engage one another and the positive outcomes they achieve as a result.
Psychological Safety is a Journey, Not a Destination
If you’re serious about creating a psychologically safe environment in your organization, then at a minimum, these are the conditions and behaviors that CEOs identify as being essential:
Mutual Respect – Respecting one another as professionals and people who share common challenges and aspirations inside and outside the workplace is at the core.
Familiarity & Trust – The better the team members know one another, the more comfortable they are to share. Achieving such an understanding rarely takes place at staff meetings or in the context of a typical workday. It requires employees to get to know one another in other settings, where more in-depth, personal conversations between individuals and in smaller groups tend to occur. It’s these shared experiences that build trust and create stronger bonds. (Employees meeting over Zoom, going through the same storm (as Amy Edmondson says), has allowed employees to get to know one another better as people – beyond fellow employees).
Learn Not Judge – When people make assumptions and judge others based on their hardwired mental models, rather than ask good questions and listen for understanding, it’s a recipe for an unsafe environment. Asking questions with the intent to increase understanding inspires psychological safety. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with one another; just open to learning a different perspective and being intentional about seeing the best in others.
Model Sharing Behaviors – Sharing ideas and asking uncomfortable questions are acts of courage and generosity. Courage because the team member is willing to put herself out there and generous because of the benefit it provides everyone. As employees witness positive sharing behaviors from their colleagues, they will respond by speaking up and asking questions more freely.
Model Listening Behaviors – When you think about it, it’s the listeners who provide the safety. The difference between an audience that’s paying attention versus one checking their cell phones or staring out a window is night and day when creating a comfortable environment for in-depth dialogue.
Share Experiences Rather Than Advice – Unless specifically requested by a team member, resist the temptation to tell people what they should or should not do. Instead, share experiences designed to help someone reach their own conclusions. It makes the environment safer for sharing and allows for a team member to own their action items. When they do, they are more likely to act on them and follow-through.
Be Respectful and Trust Intent – Sometimes, helping someone can require tough love, so challenging someone can be tricky. The team has to adopt this practice as an acceptable norm, only to serve to help the individual or the collective. For the person who believes the challenge is necessary, do so directly and respectfully. For the team member being challenged, despite how the challenge may come across in the moment, take a breath and remind yourself to trust the intent.
Why Efficacy Matters, Too
Cultures where psychological safety is high insist that employees ask questions, express their ideas, and take risks. It’s where learning, iterative processes for problem-solving, and enjoying the freedom to explore and discover can drive productivity and innovation. Along the way to creating this culture, however, employees need to experience positive, tangible outcomes. Putting themselves out there time and time again without experiencing such results can lead to employees to ask themselves, “What’s the point?” When that happens, psychological safety can backslide.
The conditions and behaviors necessary for experiencing psychological safety in your workplace include: 1) mutual respect, 2) familiarity and trust, 3) learn not judge, 4) model sharing behaviors, 5) model listening behaviors, 6) share experiences rather than advice, 7) be respectful, 8) trust intent, 9) achieve positive, tangible results, 10) see as it a journey rather than a destination. Psychological safety is about outputs and outcomes. If it’s not, it will never survive.
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