Psychological safety is the secret to having a successful team.
It’s the difference between a team that works well together and a team that struggles to get “in sync.”
A few months ago, I wrote an article called The Simple Secret To A High-Performing Team where I talked about Google’s project Aristotle, their research project to discover what makes a great team.
Google discovered five traits that make a great team, but the most important trait by far was psychological safety – being comfortable enough to share anything with your team without feeling embarrassed.
From the article:
In their research, they found that the safer team members felt with each other, the better they did in almost every area of work. They were:
More likely to own up to their mistakes Better partners to their colleagues Less likely to leave Google More likely to be open to diverse ideas
In this post, I want to look at exactly why and how you can build psychological safety on your team.
Being Comfortable On Your Team
The term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who gave a TEDx talk on how to build a psychologically safe workplace. I definitely recommend watching it:
She defines psychological safety as:
“a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves,”
“Comfortable being themselves” is an interesting concept that unfortunately, many employees don’t get to do at work.
I’ve always wondered why we wear a mask when we’re at work. Why should I be one person at home and a completely different person at work?
It makes no sense.
In a great article on MIT Sloan Management Review called Reinventing Employee Onboarding (highly recommended reading!) they talk about a concept called authentic self-expression, specifically in the onboarding process.
From the article:
We have found that the traditional methods of onboarding have some serious weaknesses. They assume that organizational values are something to be taught to and adopted by newcomers.
This creates a tension: When newcomers are “processed” to accept an organization’s identity, they are expected to downplay their own identities, at least while they are at work.
But subordinating one’s identity and unique perspectives may not be optimal in the long run for either the organization or the individual employee because suppressing one’s identity is upsetting and psychologically depleting.
The article talks about how the emotional energy that comes from not being your true self at work leads to disengagement and dissatisfaction at work.
What they suggest as an alternative, is allowing employees to tap into their strengths from day one and to reframe their job as a way to do their best work.
As a simple example, a salesperson with a passion for design could design some promotional flyers to help make their presentation stronger.
In an article for Harvard Business Review called Is Yours a Learning Organization? By David Garvin, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino, they talk about the importance of every company becoming a “learning organization”.
A learning organization is made up of “employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge.”
They talk about how important it is for staying relevant and ahead of your competitors in a world that’s moving quicker than ever.
They say that to create a learning organization, one of the key building blocks is a supportive learning environment.
Here’s what they say about psychological safety as it relates to a learning organization:
To learn, employees cannot fear being belittled or marginalized when they disagree with peers or authority figures, ask naive questions, own up to mistakes, or present a minority viewpoint. Instead, they must be comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand.
The key in all of this is getting employees to be comfortable at work.
So how do we do that?
Tips To Build Psychological Safety
One of the most interesting parts of Amy Edmondson’s research was a discovery she made about failure on high-performing teams.
She was researching medical teams at hospitals to discover what made the best performing teams. Her assumption was that the top medical teams would make the least amount of mistakes, but she found the exact opposite.
This wasn’t what she expected at all, so she started to dig deeper into what was going on.
It turns out, that in fact the best performing weren’t necessarily making more errors, it was just that they were talking about their errors more openly than other groups did.
What that means is what separated the best performing groups from the others was psychological safety and an environment where mistakes were discussed and learned from.
Here are a few ways you can practice psychological safety on your team.
A good way to build psychological safety on your team is to make everyone feel included and important.
When you’re discussing something or planning a task, make sure to ask for everyone’s input. Leaving someone out will only hurt them and make them feel less “safe”.
This is a tough one, because no one likes to fail or see their team fail.
The point is that you need to make people feel comfortable with the idea of making a mistake. Mistakes are inevitable, but they need to know that they won’t get in trouble if they do something wrong.
Ask A Lot Of Questions
Get people comfortable talking and thinking about new ways to work together by asking a lot of questions.
Give them the autonomy they need by letting them think for themselves through the questions you ask them.
Have “Anxiety Parties”
This one is from an article from Google Ventures about how they had “anxiety parties” – group discussions about what they were feeling anxious about.
From the article:
In a quiet meeting room, we spent 10 minutes individually writing down our biggest anxieties on a private sheet of paper. For the next 2 minutes we ranked them in order of severity — which anxieties worried each of us the most? Then we began.
For about an hour and a half we went around in a circle and in turn asked an anxiety question out loud. Then our colleagues would spend a few seconds scoring how much the issue troubled them from a zero (“It never even occurred to me that this was an issue”) to five (“I strongly believe you need to improve in this area”).
Remove The Fear
This is so important. You need to make sure everyone on the team isn’t scared to speak their mind or do things like take time off if they need it.
You need to be explicit and let employees know that they are safe.
This is important to make sure that there is order and structure.
Make sure that everyone on the team knows what the goals are and that everyone is working towards the same thing.
Psychological safety isn’t about creating an environment where “anything goes”, it’s actually the complete opposite of that. People need to feel “safe” that they know where everyone stands.
Admit To Your Own Mistakes
Admitting your own mistakes will help get people comfortable admitting their failures. You need to be a good role model for employees to let them know it’s safe to talk about mistakes.
Let your team know that you’re always there to help and they shouldn’t be scared to come to you with questions.
Again, it’s important to give them autonomy, but make yourself available for questions and advice.
How Do You Make Your Team Feel Safe?
Do you have any tips that you could share with us? Let us know in the comments below!