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Is Your Team Safe?

Is Your Team Safe?

BY Michelle McQuaid

Does your team get tangled up in interpersonal distress?  Do your people sidestep having honest conversations for fear they’ll upset each other?   Or avoid the risk of trying new things because they’re worried about making mistakes?  How do you make it safer for your people to speak up?

Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, studies have found that nearly eighty percent of our time working with others can get lost in what Professor Gervase Bushe describes as interpersonal mush – the largely unfavorable stories that are created to make sense of what other people are thinking, feeling and wanting.  This tendency to jump to conclusions has been found to increase your anxiety about telling others what you really think,  so you’ll be more likely to keep parts of your experience to yourself and not expect others to tell you their whole story either.  As a result, it can increase anxiety, distrust among members of your team, and undermine feelings of safety.

No wonder that Google’s two-year study found that the number one factor for high performing teams, more anything else is psychological safety.   So, what is psychological safety?

“Psychological safety describes an environment where you’re not tied up in knots about the interpersonal risks of looking stupid, negative or intrusive in the eyes of a colleague or boss,” explained Professor Amy Edmondson from the Harvard Business School when I interviewed her recently.  “Even if it’s below conscious awareness these risks drain the energy of your people.”

Amy explains that when your team feels psychological safe you can take risks and be vulnerable with each other, so you’re not afraid to speak up and offer new ideas or ask questions.  You value different opinions and perspectives, and you’re willing to admit and learn from mistakes.   This isn’t necessarily about being polite and nice, but about creating a space where honesty is possible.  It’s recognizing that true respect is openly saying what you think directly to others, and giving each other permission to make mistakes, get it wrong and be able to self-correct.

In other words, instead of getting stuck on the hump of politeness or undermining each other’s hard work, your people are willing to listen to each other, be sensitive to each other’s emotions and needs, and have honest conversations – even when they might be uncomfortable – rather than leaping to judgement, feeling embarrassed, or blaming each other.

Let’s face it though, most people want to look good and have others think well of them at work – and so it makes sense that if your people don’t feel safe, they’ll hold back saying things others may not like.  However, Amy explains that with organizational challenges becoming increasingly uncertain, complex and interdependent, the need for high performing teams and innovation is critical, so if you’re not getting your people’s input, you can be limiting your potential.

And you can’t just rely on your team’s courage or confidence to speak up.  After all, it’s difficult to be courageous in the moment when you feel either consciously or unconsciously at risk of putting yourself in harm’s way.  Instead, it’s a better strategy to create the conditions where your people don’t need to draw too much on their courage.  Research has found that when your team psychological safety is high, your people will need less courage and confidence to speak up.

This doesn’t mean that you need to lower your performance standards or hold your people accountable for their work.  You can still have high standards, high accountability and high psychological safety in your team.  Nor does it mean that you necessarily eliminate all other business risks or fears, but by reducing the interpersonal mush in your workplace you can free up your energy to focus on others.

“Stepping back to realize how much at risk your leadership and your company is when you’re not hearing what’s going on,” said Amy, “Can enable you to invest in doing the things you need to do to make it psychologically safe.”

Amy gives three suggestions to increase psychological safety in your team.

  • Encourage curiosity about team members – help your people get to know each other better by creating forums for asking questions about each other’s experiences, areas of expertise, strengths, and struggles. This lowers the need for courage to ask questions about each other and instead improves your people’s levels of confidence and trust in each other.
  • Be willing to not know everything – you may believe that as a leader you’re supposed to have all of the answers and be in control, but this is no longer true in businesses that thrive.  Understanding and building psychological safety come with the recognition that you don’t know everything, and you are at the mercy of your people’s willingness to step in and step up and to create value together.
  • Practice inclusive leadership – proactively set the scene by acknowledging that you don’t necessarily know everything and remind your people that it’s vital that you hear their questions, ideas, and challenges. Then proactively seek people’s input by asking questions and respond with appreciation and interest to what they have to contribute.

What can you do to create more psychological safety for your teams?


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