When Google’s People Operations team set out to understand how they could build the perfect team. They identified psychological safety as the single most important pattern of high-performing teams.
But, what is psychological safety?
Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School has written extensively on the topic. Psychological safety is characterized by the extent to which individuals and teams feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other. Members of teams with psychological safety are:
· Accessible and approachable
· Prepared to admit when and what they do not know
· Open to demonstrating that they too are imperfect
· Good at inviting others to participate
· Proficient in framing mistakes and failures as opportunities for learning
· Comfortable using direct language
· Skilled at holding people accountable
A powerful aspect of Edmonson’s research is how she frames psychological safety at the team level. She does not see it as an attribute of individuals. Team members develop their perceptions of psychological safety from shared experiences. In other words, perceptions of psychological safety must be shared across the team for it to be present.
Edmonson cautions that psychological safety must be fostered and cultivated. Leaders who try to impose top-down approaches will be disappointed. Take for example the story of Arthur Ryan, CEO of Prudential. Ryan, with all the best intentions, wanted to change the culture at Prudential. At the time, employees called it “Pru-polite”. Ryan thought that to be a leading company, employees needed to engage in direct and honest communication. He and his team tried to counter that and set out to create a psychologically safe environment by launching and implementing the “Safe-to-Say” initiative. Despite the praise from his colleagues for the initiative, Ryan and his team saw little movement in employee’s willingness and ability to speak up.
Psychological safety is about more than just speaking up. Edmonson’ research has found that the closest manager, supervisor or boss has the strongest influence on the perception of psychological safety. These authority figures must cultivate psychological safety in practical ways.
Building psychological safety is a deeply social process and it is characterized by the types of relationships that are cultivated within teams. In the book, The Entrepreneurial Journey: A handbook for Building a Business, Norm Trainor explains that psychological safety is built by making your workplace trustworthy. Employees must feel physical, social and psychological safety. Psychological safety cannot be trained, it must be fostered through trust and respect. When “people feel respected – looked at, seen for who they are – they will give you all the capabilities they have.” This feeling or perception can really transform your business.
Edmonson suggests that members of teams with high psychological feel like:
· They are free to speak up on difficult issues
· Free to seek help
· They can be themselves and do not need to wear a mask
· They can openly talk about failures, mistakes and problems as learning opportunities
· Members perceive the team culture as one that is encouraging of humor and laughter
The most difficult part of creating psychological safety is finding a balance between accountability and psychological safety. To improve accountability, teams need to have clearly defined roles and boundaries. Additionally, teams need to clearly articulate the criteria by which success will be measured. Entrepreneurs, leaders and the employees need to acknowledge that even the best and most competent professionals make mistakes. No one is perfect, we all have work to do.
Most of us struggle with exercising authority and holding others accountable for their actions Team members should understand that when mistakes occur, they will be handled fairly. High-performing teams excel by balancing accountability and psychological safety. Teams that clearly understand their boundaries are free to operate within predetermined constraints. For example, when teams understand what counts as a transgression, what is a dismissible offence and what counts as reckless behavior, they create the structure for psychological safety. When team members know their constraints, it creates space to build a culture of collaboration, learning and innovating.
Creating psychological safety is both an art and a science. It needs to be cultivated by the informal relationships within teams but enforced by formal structures within your organization. One way to think of it is to compare it to gardening. If we do not take care of our garden it can become overrun with weeds. High-performing entrepreneurs make time to cultivate relationships. They understand that by paying attention to their team, they are setting the stage for redefining their performance.
Edmondson, A. C. (2012). Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. John Wiley & Sons.
Trainor, N. (2010). The Entrepreneurial Journey: A Handbook for Building a Business. The Covenant Group