Explainers

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Psychological Safety (and Felt Safe Enough to Ask)

The most important factor in any high-performing team is psychological safety: that is, the feeling that it’s safe to take risks in front of the group. But how do you foster it?

Psychological safety is the foundation of high-performing teams: in a psychologically safe environment, you can debate ideas without fear of judgment, and people are less likely to blame each other for failures. Increased psychological safety is linked to everything from higher engagement and well-being to improved ideation and implementation. It’s critical for minorities in order to perform well, and ultimately, leads to better performing organizations.

Psychological safety is not:

  • About one individual (rather than the group) feeling safe or unsafe
  • Saying whatever you want
  • Reacting “authentically”
  • Acting the same way at work as you do at home
  • Bringing your whole self to work
  • Using radical candor

What Psychological Safety Looks Like

High psychological safety behaviors include:

  • Lively yet respectful debate
  • Yes, and… answers
  • Personal experiences shared
  • Many different people speak
  • Lower-level people are engaged

Low psychological safety behaviors include:

  • Waiting for the leader to speak before voicing your opinion
  • Never debating
  • Insinuations, rather than open referencing
  • Lower-level people never speak (and are never asked)

Surprisingly, it is possible to have too much psychological safety, which manifests as:

What about Authenticity?

Psychological safety leads to authenticity. When you feel safe, you are more likely to be authentic. But being authentic does not always lead to psychological safety. Vulnerability and personal sharing makes people feel closer, but people (especially leaders) may share things—in the name of authenticity—that inhibit others from sharing information.

Fear of Reprisal Matters

Under the old leadership style of command and control, it was considered acceptable to have employees be careful and feel afraid. But our world has become so complex that managers no longer have access to all the information they need to make key decisions. Now, even low-level employees have to notice what’s going on and share upwards.

Our natural human desires direct us to please the boss, to be correct, and to gain status. Even if we rationally believe we should speak up, it’s hard for our rational minds to overpower those emotions. When you are fearful of your reputation or of reprisal, power gets diverted from your prefrontal cortex and you can’t think as clearly. You are less likely to say something that conflicts with these emotions—which nudges you away from diving into conflict.

In short: a climate of fear → individual’s negative emotions → less analytical power → information does not get shared.

Creating Psychological Safety

In an effort to build psychological safety, leaders will often try to force people to interact in specific ways by demanding positivity, vulnerability, or authenticity (“Come on, Jon! I’m sure there’s something you’re excited about! Tell us”), or forcing them to engage. Instead, try the following:

  • Explicitly encourage people to contribute ideas. Don’t just expect that people will speak up—make it clear, whenever anyone joins the team, that they should actively participate.
  • Hold check-ins at the top of meetings. At the beginning of the meeting, ask everyone “what’s on your mind?” or “what’s keeping you from being present?” to get a better understanding of your colleagues.
  • Manage meetings in rounds. When soliciting input, give everyone a few minutes to think about potential answers or solutions, and then go around the table one by one so that everyone how the opportunity to contribute.
  • Hold pre- and post-mortems. Bring the team together regularly to voice their concerns about potential problems, and learn from prior mistakes. Get instructions for running post-mortems here.
  • Get to know individual working preferences and backgrounds of your team. This could be done via 1:1 meetings or by creating a “user manual” of what it’s like to work with you.

Remote teams require some adaptations:

  • Psychological safety comes from experiencing how a person’s mind works, so give people opportunity to jam together. Seek out positive and fun contexts, like open-ended games or creative projects, rather than serious, time pressured output.
  • Arrange for frequent, semi-structured facetime. Too much structure leads to less understanding; too little structure and you end up making meaningless small talk .
  • Use high-bandwidth methods for all but easiest questions. Asynchronous message is fine if you already have high psychological safety, but it won’t build it. And especially at the beginning of a relationship, over-communicate about team norms and expectations.
Published April 21, 2019

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