Creating a psychologically safe team

By Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services

Creating a psychologically safe team isn’t an easy feat, but the benefits are exponentially worth it. Amy Edmondson, a professor from Harvard Business School, defines a psychologically safe team as “A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. As she mentions in her 2015 Tedx Talk, “nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to go to work to feel ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative”. In Edmondson’s research she has found that the top teams who make the fewest errors were not in fact the most productive teams, as it turns out better performing teams are the ones making more errors than worse performing ones. The reason behind this finding is that teams making the most errors but they feel able to admit mistakes and discuss them, learn more and enter into more of a growth mindset.

The biggest barrier to creating a psychologically safe team where individuals feel they can speak up about their opinion without having the fear of being shut down or criticised, is ego. The individual’s ego and the ego of their superior. Take, for instance, an executive who has only recently joined the company – she is involved in a meeting with other executives where they are all enthusiastically discussing a new merger which is almost complete. The new executive has knowledge of the company they are about to merge with and is of the belief that it is not a good idea, for some legitimate reasons. Instead of voicing her opinion she keeps quiet. In another situation a pilot notices that his superior has made an operational error, instead of speaking up, he remains quiet. Now you may think, if that was me, I would totally speak up, however it is surprising the amount of times we remain silent to protect our ego and avoid criticism.

So just how do you create a team culture where individual’s drop their ego’s and are able to voice their opinions without the fear for being shut down, criticised unfairly or judged if their opinion ends up being wrong?

As a Leader

  1. You need to drop your ego. You may think you already have your ego in check, however overcoming your ego is a constant challenge that you need to work at. As a leader it can be difficult to overcome the notion that your opinion is more important than those in your team, especially when you make the ultimate decision. Don’t get stuck filling meetings with words of wisdom from your last 20 years. Start being more concerned about the needs and accomplishments of other people than you are with your own.
  2. You too are fallible. Own up to your mistakes, in fact down right brag about them! The more you let people know you are fallible by using statements like “I may miss something” or “this isn’t my strength, I need to hear from you” the more your team will begin to feel they can do the same without judgement or repercussions.
  3. Be curious. Ask questions and listen. Really listen. Team members who feel heard are more likely to speak up instead of thinking ‘what’s the point, she never listens to me anyway’.
  4. Be accountable. The only way to call up your team to be accountable for excellence, is to do so yourself. John Miller, author of “The Question Behind the Question” identifies key words that indicate when a question is coming from a victim context and not from a place of accountability, “why” being one of them. “Why doesn’t anyone tell me anything?” “Why do things keep changing ?”Miller explains that accountable questions start with “what” or “how”, and must include the word “I” and end with an action verb. So get accountable yourself before calling on others in your team to do so.

When discussing psychologically safe teams, Edmondson refers to three categories; the “learning zone”, when leaders allow for questions and discussions and also hold their employees accountable for excellence, “the anxiety zone”, when leaders only hold their employees accountable for excellence without creating psychological safety, and “the comfort zone” when leaders only create psychological safety without holding their employees accountable for excellence.

So what are the benefits of shifting to the “learning zone”?

  1. “How can I out-perform?” becomes “what can I do to help?”. Instead of employees competing against each other to be seen the best at their job, which is a self-serving goal to feed their ego, in a psychologically safe team, employees develop healthy interpersonal relationships and work in collaboration towards the greater good i.e. achieving company goals.
  2. Being right is replaced by innovation. Instead of employees being concerned with being right all the time, in psychologically safe teams, employees are encouraged to think outside the box, innovate and test out their ideas without the fear of failure.
  3. “Everything is fine” becomes “I could do with some help”. Instead of a team member struggling with a problem on their own, in a psychologically safe team, employees don’t fear their weaknesses, they own them and call on others to help.

When all is said and done, psychological safety in the workplace is about providing a safe space for employees to be their full selves.

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