How to build psychological safety at work to improve team performance

Written by Georgina Stokes, Principal Consultant, and Sophie Seex, Managing Consultant

The quest to develop and sustain high-performing teams can seem somewhat of a holy grail. Why is that? Well, for starters, teams are enormously complex, dynamic systems of people and processes – which don’t exist in a vacuum – that are influenced by the people and wider system that surrounds them.

Yet the hunt persists as high-performance teams are shown to not only deliver exceptional results today, but to continually improve, delivering better results over time. Sounds great, right? So how can we create this ‘team magic?’

Well, many factors contribute to creating and sustaining a high-performing team, but one vital factor that will enable the team to function at its best is learning how to build psychological safety at work. It’s important that employees feel like they belong within an organization, therefore leaders can create psychological safety within their team to ensure they continue growing, learning, and getting better over time.

What is psychological safety at work?

Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a shared expectation that the environment and relationships are safe for interpersonal risk taking. In essence, psychological safety at work is a feeling. It’s feeling comfortable to speak up and say something that might not be popular, knowing that you won’t experience consequences for saying it.

Professor Edmondson demonstrated the benefit of psychological safety in hospital teams. She discovered that the very best performing teams made (and reported) the greatest number of mistakes. At first perplexing, she deduced it was the strong levels of psychological safety in those teams which enabled team members to discuss and learn from the mistakes that occurred, contributing to their overall success and improvement over time.

The significant role that psychological safety at work plays in team success was reinforced by Google’s Aristotle research project which found that of all the group norms or ways of working together that were identified as contributing to team success, psychological safety came out on top.

Overall, psychological safety at work is a feeling that team members experience and when it exists, employees feel safe to take risks and be open with each other. There are no elephants in the room or fear of judgment if you offer your idea. Psychological safety at work creates an environment where people feel they can let their guard down, which is vital to achieving the highest levels of team effectiveness.

What psychological safety isn’t

Now for some myth-busting! There are some common misconceptions that exist around this topic, and misunderstanding what psychological safety in teams is can be a problem for us because in order to create it, we first need to understand it.

  1. Psychological safety within a team isn’t an excuse to say whatever we want, however we want, as it is diminished without demonstrating respect for others.
  2. It isn’t about being nice all the time, either. Psychological safety at work enables us to speak openly about difficult topics, or raise challenging issues – constructive, respectful challenge is important for learning and continuous improvement.
  3. Having psychological safety at work doesn’t come at the cost of accountability. They are not mutually exclusive, and the best teams have both. Psychological safety can enhance quality or standards of team outputs, as team members are willing to speak up and talk openly about issues relating to work quality.

Why does psychological safety at work matter?

The benefits of psychological safety at work are most evident when we look at what happens when it doesn’t exist. Take Nokia for example, the former mobile phone giant of the world, who went from rapid growth to falling way behind their competitors. Nokia had a fearful emotional climate which stifled honest feedback and the rapid uptake of new technology. Contrast this with Apple who had learned to create psychologically safe environments where ideas could flow and teams could learn fast. When the more innovative and future-focused Apple created the iPhone, Nokia simply couldn’t keep up.

Even more serious are the implications arising from a lack of psychological safety in safety-critical environments. Amy Edmonson questioned whether the Columbia space shuttle incident of 2003 was preventable when an engineer noticed a possible issue during launch, but did not feel psychologically safe enough to voice his observation and subsequent concerns to his superiors.

More recently, the factory workers at Boeing felt they couldn’t tell managers about problems they were seeing in the production of the Boeing 737MAX aircraft which ultimately saw two airline crashes and hundreds of lives lost. These scenarios demonstrate environments that breed employee trepidation and prove that no matter your team’s purpose or industry, a lack of psychological safety at work could result in avoidable problems.

Without a strong presence of psychological safety at work, known issues could persist without being addressed, lower standards could be accepted, or opportunities missed because the cost of speaking up to highlight them is too great a risk for the individuals who notice them.

The role of emotional intelligence and psychological safety at work

As we stated earlier, psychological safety is all about feelings. It’s about feeling safe versus fearful in groups. Psychologically unsafe environments are emotionally expensive because fear shuts us down, drives defensive behaviors, and diminishes performance.

Everyone in a team has a responsibility for enabling a feeling of safety. Through micro-interpersonal behaviors we can make ‘deposits’ or ‘withdrawals’ to the feeling of psychological safety. This is where emotional intelligence (EI) comes in. When team members are emotionally intelligent, they have positive intentions towards one another which builds trust. They are then more likely to openly engage with each other, becoming aware of each other’s feelings, which creates an atmosphere of safety within the team.

Leaders play a particularly important role in creating a positive emotional climate within the team. When they act with EI, they are more aware of their behaviors and able to effectively manage them. This enables leaders to inspire and include others, and helps to create a sense of openness which sets the scene for psychological safety at work.

How to build psychological safety at work with your team

Putting psychological safety at work into practice with your team is a collaborative effort. It requires everyone to be mindful of the climate they create. We’ve combined research with our expertise to create a three-part strategy for how to build psychological safety at work in your own teams:

  1. Signal positive intent: Signal and frame your messages and interactions in a way that clearly communicates your positive intentions. This can be verbal or non-verbal. This is important because it invites the other person to relax, avoids defensive reactions, and allows others to be open to your message.
  2. Show interpersonal sensitivity: Be aware and attentive to what is going on for people emotionally by being curious and showing empathy. This is especially important for establishing psychological safety at work as it encourages people to feel comfortable sharing problems, asking for help, and saying when they disagree – leading to effective dialogue rather than ineffective debate.
  3. Learn without judgment: Approach challenges with a learning mindset, be non-judgmental about what could be changed or improved, and be sure to separate the person from the problem. This is important because it helps to develop a learning culture within the team, which drives results.

3 tips to build psychological safety within your team

Psychological safety at work needs to be sustained by everyone, however the team leader has a key role to play in building a secure climate. To build on the three steps above, consider the following tips and see how you can proactively provide opportunities to invest in psychological safety at work and build them into your team norms:

  • Allow time and space at meetings for people to air challenges or raise concerns and invite contributions.
  • Monitor the climate and instigate positive habits for the team. A few examples could include:
    • Check in with each other frequently
    • Create rituals for belonging by giving and receiving feedback
    • Listen well, and develop habits to support learning
  • Continuously build your psychological safety at work capital. Be proactive and invest in strengthening it when times are good so that when challenges do occur, the team has reserves to draw upon.

Putting psychological safety at work into practice

Psychological safety at work is critical, and the consequences of not having it are quite impactful. Use the strategies above to restart and reset when things go wrong. Teams are complex and the route to high job performance isn’t all smooth sailing, so know taking a time out and getting back to the basics of psychological safety can help the team to move forward. In doing so, you’ll come to find that that the aforementioned ‘team magic’ isn’t really magic at all; it’s an intentional effort made by leaders to ensure their teams work together both effectively and respectfully.

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