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6 steps to building a psychologically safe team

“How can I make sure my team are engaged and productive?” This is a question all leaders have asked themselves at one point or another.

Whether it’s leading a small and agile team, or a fast-growing organisation, there is no doubt that it’s the creativity, intelligence and problem-solving abilities of individuals and collective groups that make any organisation work. And, building an ecosystem that allows them to thrive is essential to achieving any type of goal.

When it comes to the ingredients that make a high-performing team, organisations and leaders often point to the importance of having a strong mission, clear vision and even workplace perks that consistently work to engage teams. However, in 2015, Google released a two-year study that looked into the makings of a high-performing team. Alongside dynamics like dependability, impact of work, clarity, and meaning of work, psychological safety was also found to be an essential ingredient. 

Think back, and you’ll likely remember a team that you were a part of. Whether it was a sports team, a work team, or even a group assignment. Within these groups,  there are moments where you would have thrived and felt confident to bring your best, and others where you felt less comfortable or confident — this is where psychological safety comes to the foray.

What is psychological safety?

Before we look into the inner mechanisms of psychological safety and building these types of teams, it’s important to clearly identify the definition of psychological safety. 

The term was originally coined by Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, and can be thought about as an environment where vulnerability is rewarded and both individuals and teams feel included, safe to learn and safe to challenge the way things are done. In a recent interview with HBR IdeasCast Dr. Edmondson shared that psychological safety often gets confused as “a sense of cosiness, and that everything is going to be great and that we’re all going to be nice to each other.” She reminds us that it’s actually about being honest and being able to make mistakes, “[psychological safety is about] candour. Being direct, taking risks being willing to say ‘I screwed that up’ or being willing to admit that you are in over your head.”

Why is psychological safety important?

When asked about the importance of building teams that feel safe to explore and experiment with their ideas and abilities, Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu who is a Clinical Psychologist and the Clinical Innovation Manager at Lysn, believes that not only will organisations find increased results, but they will also build empowered individuals who are able to cultivate meaningful experiences within their work identities and the work they do:

“Psychological safety sets up for creative and resilient teams whereby team members readily bounce ideas off each other, take risks and make mistakes without fear in pursuit of innovation and strong outcomes. Such teams are motivated and engaged to tackle challenges and setbacks together and are collaborative in their learning, decision-making and problem-solving. 

“Team members feel valued, utilised, and supported irrespective of successes, mistakes and failures. Team members in psychologically safe teams feel free and empowered in their workplace – they do not feel a need to compartmentalise their personal and professional selves.” 

This is a sentiment also echoed by Dr. Edmondson when reflecting on the success of Pixar. “Pixar is a company that has had 17 in a row major box-office successes that are critically acclaimed. It’s an unheard of success… Ed Catmull, the co-founder has gone out of his way, and very deliberately, to create and keep creating a psychologically safe environment, where candour is expected and critical for feedback. And they do this in two fundamental ways. The first is behavioural, the other is structure. The behavioural is that Catmull will share the mistake he’s made, because leaders have to share and be vulnerable and that they are fallible human beings…the other is structural… setting up meetings and sessions that are thoughtfully created to give each other thoughtful and candid feedback.”

From this we can see that as we face new global challenges that require new models of operation and ways of thinking, psychological safety is an essential element that will lead to fresh solutions the world is currently craving.

Identifying when you don’t feel psychologically safe in a team

While we know what a psychologically safe team looks like, it’s also important to identify when you’re a part of a team that you don’t feel safe in or are a leader who looks after those who don’t feel psychologically safe. These feelings can look like:

  • You feel hesitant to ask about things you do not know or fully understand.
  • You feel as though you are trying to uphold an image of self-sufficiency and perfect proficiency in all skill areas and do not talk openly about personal and professional areas you might like to further develop.
  • Your team is hesitant to ask each other for help when they need it.
  • You or your team is quick to distance themselves from the challenge at hand and enter into protective mode.
  • Your team is not active in team channels and tends to message one another privately.

What are the impacts of being part of a work environment that lacks psychological safety?

When it comes to the impacts of not building and maintaining psychologically safe teams, the impacts are wide-reaching and deeply impacting.

“A work environment that lacks psychological safety often generates a culture where team members get on with their individual tasks and actions plans without much interest or agency in innovating and iterating on the status quo. Team meetings are often quiet, with little conversational turn-taking. Teams are less innovative, creative and have poorer workplace culture and collegiality, and increased turnover” says Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu.

How to build psychological safety in the workplace

When it comes to building a team that feels and acts within a psychologically safe environment, there is no one-size-fits-all model. However, there are core principles that both Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu and Dr. Amy Edmondson suggest.

1. Demonstrate and promote a learning mindset

When it comes to building psychological safety, Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu believes that it’s important to promote a learning mindset when solving problems. “It’s important to frame problems and challenges as valuable learning experiences, and not as execution problems”.

Team & Work Tip: When stating problems or gaps that you would like to see resolved, use neutral and observational language. Think about being a reporter and stating what you see, hear and have read. Try and keep emotions out of the equation as much as possible. 

2. Adopt a position of curiosity

Similar to a learning mindset, it’s important to approach new projects, opportunities and goals as areas that require curiosity and new ways of thinking.

“Model curiosity and explore possible solutions by asking your team members questions with a genuine intention of learning from them. Never blame (using language like “why did you do this?”) instead, always use collaborative language like “What can we do together to…”, “How can we safeguard this in the future…” says Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu.

3. Model vulnerability — share your successes and mistakes

Another way to cultivate a culture of vulnerability within your team and those you lead is to show vulnerability first. This is something that the Pixar team and Dr. Amy Edmondson highly recommend for anyone in positions of leadership.

 “Model vulnerability and acknowledge your own fallibility. Share your successes and failures with your teammates, and own up to your mistakes.” Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu encourages.

4. Build a culture of honest feedback

Another recommendation Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu suggests for leaders, is that they aim to build a culture of feedback and promote the importance of it within your team.

“Seek to hear input, opinions and feedback from all of your teammates and ensure minimal interruptions to when a team member is presenting their idea. Encourage a culture of perspective-sharing and healthy conflict. Invite people to respectfully voice differences in opinions and engage in healthy debate.”

5. Implement helpful structures

Similar to Pixar, Dr. Yisha Stiskala-Yu advocates for building structures and check-ins that fosters safe spaces for team members at an individual level or collective level to speak candidly. This can include 1:1 meetings, retrospectives after a project, or quarterly group check ins.

Learn more about effective meetings: Effective meetings 101: Everything you need to know

Aside from these structures, it’s also important to practice clear communication “[at every available opportunity] walk your team through how you arrive at a decision and not just announce your final decision. Take people on your decision-making journey and acknowledge individual team member’s contributions. 

6. Demonstrate engagement and listen well

“Be proactive about providing others with verbal validations to show you are listening (“I see what you’re saying, tell me more”, “I understand”, “I see”) and be aware of your body language. Face the person you are speaking and nod your head to demonstrate your understanding.”

Building a trusting leader & team member relationship

It comes as no surprise that building teams that feel safe also starts with the foundation of building trust in the one-to-one relationship between leaders and the people they help support and build. 

“The employee-manager relationship is a fundamental building block of a strong organisational structure,” says Dr. Stiskala-Yu.

In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey summarizes the psychology of trust in simple terms: “trust means confidence. The opposite of trust – distrust – is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them – of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record. It’s that simple.”

This is supported by the results of a 2016 study on the importance of trust in the workplace published in Harvard Business Review found employees in high-trust companies are more engaged, collaborative, productive, and energised compared to those in low-trust companies. This study also reported that those in high-trust organisations had a greater life satisfaction, fewer feelings of burnout and took fewer sick days.

While building a psychologically safe team takes consistent work, implementation and understanding, Dr. Stiskala-Yu suggests that a good place to start is with a position of observation and building small steps, best practices and structures that you and your team can work towards.

“Start by observing your team today. Watch how team members communicate with one another in meetings, and the language they use. The smallest changes can positively impact people and workplace culture in significant ways. Start by committing to just one of the tips above and see if there are opportunities for you to engage your team differently.”

 

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