How to foster psychological safety in your team

Finding the secret to building high performing teams is every NFP manager’s dream but it’s a tricky business.

You may have all the right people, an enviable collection of skills and even a great team culture, but for some reason, they just aren’t delivering the goods.

Tech behemoth Google spent years researching this very issue, observing and measuring hundreds of different teams. And what they discovered may help you.

While there was no perfect formula for the composition of a great team, the highest performing teams did have one key ingredient in common – psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a climate where people feel it’s safe to speak up candidly without fear of punishment or humiliation. It’s not only okay to raise ideas, concerns and mistakes – it’s expected.

The concept was first developed by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson as a young researcher.

She was studying the rate of medication errors in hospitals and discovered that the more successful hospitals had more errors and “near misses”, not less. She also learned how many required new equipment like these highly rated electric hospital beds which can help to administer treatment for efficiency.

This led her to the breakthrough conclusion that the performance of a team is determined less by the skill of its members than by the culture of the team.

Why psychological safety matters

High psychological safety makes it safe for team members to speak freely, helping to:

  • Prevent errors: Instead of hiding mistakes to protect themselves, people share mistakes, learn from them and prevent them.
  • Fuel creativity and innovation. Because they trust their team, they feel comfortable contributing innovative, out of the box ideas and have the courage to be themselves rather than holding back their good ideas to fit in.
  • Increase inclusion and engagement. New or shy team members – those who lack power and status and may normally be excluded – are allowed a seat at the table to voice fresh ideas and perspectives.

Psychological safety also overcomes one of the most insidious threats to team success – workplace silence.

A “culture of silence” not only costs organisations opportunities, it creates risk. In an environment where leaders only welcome good news, they may ignore risks and red flags or cause their teams to be overly confident in their decision-making skills.

And if people don’t feel empowered to speak up while they’re in your organisation, they’re more likely to hold onto concerns after they leave, exposing your organisation to broader reputation damage.

How can you create a culture of psychological safety?

Professor Edmondson describes psychological safety as the means to arrive at excellence and the good news is you can start building it in your team at any time. 

Here are three practical steps that Prof Edmondson suggests that you can take to build pychological safety in your team:

1.     Frame the work – and reframe regularly

What’s important in your team’s work? Is it client safety? Maximising dollars fundraised or numbers of clients assessed? Perfectly written communications? A high score on staff surveys?

As a leader you need to set the stage for your team’s work, and then invite their relevant input to clarify how the team can improve in the direction that has been set.

Defining what is important for the team to focus on is not a “one and done” process, but something that needs to be done repeatedly and regularly, by creating processes for regularly reflecting on, learning and improving how the team works.

2.     Invite participation

Don’t assume your team will offer input. Edmondson says that you need to ask for input explicitly and repeatedly in a way that people find “compelling and genuine”.

You can lower the bar for input and participation in meetings and consultation with two tools: humility and productive inquiry.

Humility “is not modesty, false or otherwise. Humility is the simple recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and you certainly don’t have a crystal ball. Research shows that when leaders express humility, teams engage in more learning behaviour.”

This is similar to cultivating a growth mindset: the belief that all of us has the capacity to reflect, learn and grow, and the more we do, the more successful we will be.

As a leader or manager, humility might look like:

  • Inviting feedback from the team before putting forward your own ideas;
  • Noticing if quieter members of the team aren’t contributing, and inviting their perspectives;
  • Embracing uncertainty and being able to say “I don’t know” and “what do you think?” instead of offering an uninformed opinion; and
  • Acknowledging your own errors and shortcomings whenever you can.

3.     Respond productively

According to Edmondson, praise and appreciation are the keys to a productive and positive response from a manager or leader.

She urges leaders to praise effort, regardless of outcome – especially in uncertain situations where it’s not 100% clear how much good or bad outcomes are due to good or bad processes or how much they’re due to luck or outside events. In those situations, you want to be especially sure people are appreciated for trying their best.

Even beyond that, she suggests destigmatising and even celebrating failure – though importantly this requires the team committing to measure it’s performance when it tries new ideas or projects.

Not only can celebrating the failure of an idea encourage new ideas and innovation, it can allow for a quicker redeployment of time or money to better ideas, and also a focus on what can be learned from the failure.

Failure shouldn’t always be celebrated though. In rare cases where a failure was preventable or was the result of someone not following an agreed process, a productive response might remain a more traditional response: having a performance management conversation, or even firing them for a serious incident.

Working in a psychologically safe team means people are liberated to bring their full selves to the challenges they face at work. This enables teams to reach their full potential and contribute to a higher performing team and a more effective organisation.

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