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High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. How to Build It.

Frequently asked questions about psychological safety. What is psychological safety? Why is it vital to high performing teams? How to build it?

By Gustavo Razzetti

August 24, 2019

Psychological Safety Made Simple — An Intro Guide

“There’s no team without trust.”–Paul Santagata

Psychological Safety is the foundation of high-performing teams. No matter how talented, smart, or diverse team members are, they won’t take risks or experiment if they fear being punished.

In previous articles, I’ve addressed how psychological safety helps create fearless cultures and how to build a safe workplace environment. This post is an intro guide to the approach, key concepts, and methods.

Psychological Safety Frequently Asked Questions

What is Psychological Safety in the workplace?

Psychological safety is the foundation of high-performing teams. It creates a space where people feel secure and safe to speak up, be themselves, and experiment.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. People are not afraid of negative consequences like being criticized, ignored, laughed at, or punished.

High-performing teams need psychological safety. When people feel accepted and respected, they bring their best selves to work.

What Psychological Safety is not

Working in a psychologically safe environment does not mean that people always agree for the sake of being nice.

It also doesn’t mean that people will praise or unconditionally support everything you say. It’s not about being nice, but candid.

Psychological Safety provides the space to address conflict productively. It enables people to speak up, be candid, and think of what’s best for the team.

Psychological Safety isn’t about saying everything you want or being disrespectful either. It’s not about being authentic, but candid.

What are the benefits of Psychological Safety?

Increased Psychological Safety drives higher engagement, collaboration, and participation.

It increases creativity, conflict resolution, and overall well-being.

Psychological Safety makes it easier to include the voice of quiet members. It leads to better team performance by increasing participation of women, introverts, and minorities – the ones who are interrupted the most at work.

Does Psychological Safety lower team performance?

On the contrary, feeling safe doesn’t mean being comfortable. It allows people to embrace discomfort, address conflict, and solve problems.

A study by The Science of Creating High-Performing Teams shows that employees who feel their teams are safe are:
– 76% more engaged
– 50% more productive
– 50% more likely to stay

What’s the difference between Psychological Safety and Trust?

Psychological safety is often confused with trust.

The primary difference is that Psychological Safety is a “shared” belief – it’s a group norm that involves all team members. The group as a whole is safe for everyone to participate.

Trust, on the other hand, is something between two people. It’s a mutual feeling between you and someone else.

Trust is about two individuals; Psychological Safety is about the whole team.

Why is Psychological Safety Important for teamwork?

Psychological Safety increases participation by integrating different voices and perspectives, thus improving collaboration.

High psychological safety practices:
– Open dialogue
– People sharing their opinions and ideas confidently
– Fearless behavior and mindset
– Emotions are welcome and acknowledged
– Team members solve conflict productively
– Conversational turn-taking–leaders speak last

Low psychological safety behaviors:
– Silence or self-censoring
– People keeping their opinions or ideas to themselves
– Fear of being ignored, ridiculed, punished, or fired
– Emotions are ignored or bottled
– Conflict avoidance
Quiet voices are not included–leaders interrupt and influence others

Who coined the term Psychological Safety?

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson coined the term. While studying medical teams in hospitals, she found that high performing teams were making more errors than worse performing ones.

Edmondson realized that high performing teams were admitting and discussing their mistakes. Those teams felt safe to talk about them––they could learn and improve their performance.

Edmondson’s definition is that Psychological Safety is, “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

What’s the Project Aristotle?

Project Aristotle was an initiative by Google to uncover what makes or breaks a high-performing team. It was named Aristotle because of the eponymous Greek philosopher’s quote: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Google evaluated various hypotheses of what defined high-performing teams. The initial assumption was that it requires having the best talent working together. Then they evaluated the impact of mixing people with diverse personalities, skills, and backgrounds.

The researchers also explored the impact of gender and ethnic diversity as well as whether high performing teams benefit from consensus or disagreement.

In the end, Google concluded that Psychological Safety is crucial for building high-performing teams.

What are the 5 behaviors of high performing teams according to Google?

Google’s Project Aristotle uncovered 5 behaviors that create high performing teams: Psychological Safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

Psychological Safety: How much risk team members perceive and what consequences they believe they may face when asking a question, suggesting a new idea, or owning up to a problem.

Dependability: Members are able to rely on each other to complete the required tasks.

Structure and clarity: Defines clear roles for each individual. All members understand their short-term goals and contribute to overall objectives.

Meaning: Personal fulfillment derived from the person’s role or the team’s overall accomplishments.

Impact: Members of the team feel their work is meaningful and makes a difference.

How do I start building Psychological Safety?

Amy Edmondson recommends three key steps.

1. Start with the leader. The most senior people in a team or organization must set the stage to frame the work and emphasize the purpose. They must lead by example.

2. Invite participation. Leaders must practice inquiry to encourage people to challenge beliefs and established practices. This requires intellectual humility and to set transparent processes to drive equal participation of all team members.

3. Respond productively. Listen to people’s ideas and opinions but, most importantly, appreciate their input and make it explicit that you paid attention. Also, destigmatize failure and making mistakes.

How do I encourage Psychological Safety?

There are four actionable ways to build a fearless, safe culture, as I wrote here:

1. Increase Self-Awareness:
Trust starts with yourself. If you want someone to trust you, you must trust them first. Self-awareness not only helps us grow but also uncovers our blind spots. Feedback is vital to understand how we deal with trust.

Self-aware leaders embrace vulnerability — they aren’t afraid of recognizing mistakes. That’s the first step to heal an unsafe culture.

Self-awareness makes us both trusting and trustworthy.

2. Facilitate Participation: 
Organizations have a silence problem, but most don’t realize it. Silence encourages groupthink — people keep their genuine opinions to themselves.

Design meetings to increase participation and openness.

Practice conversational turn-taking. Provide each team member a turn to speak up. Managers or loud people should always go last —- you don’t want them to influence or intimidate the rest.

3. Design Team Rituals:

Rituals are an effective way to drive meaningful change. They accelerate collaboration, creativity, and trust. Team rituals bring people together -they help correct or reinforce behaviors in a human, non-threatening way.

Flipboard, for example, promotes vulnerability by sharing work in progress during their Mock O’Clock ritual.

Stride has increased inclusion and participation with their Lean Coffee ritual. It’s an open, no-agenda meeting where everyone shares topics they would like to discuss. The entire team votes on what items will be addressed.

4. Establish Adult Rules and Norms:
Most companies say they trust their employees, but then their rules show the opposite.

Psychological safety is encouraging people to behave like adults; to address things openly, with respect, and candor. Corporate rules should promote that same behavior.

Trust is not built with words, but with acts. Many companies are now offering an unlimited vacation policy while others have removed the approval process from expense reports.

When company policies trust rather than control employees, people feel safe to bring their best selves.

5. Reward and Punish Behavior:
Building a culture of psychological safety requires action, not just words. Leaders must reward good behaviors and don’t let bad ones go unpunished.

Managers define who gets promoted, works on the cool projects, or attends leadership training —- their actions signal what the organization rewards. Their behaviors could encourage or hinder Psychological Safety.

Trust is fragile —- hard to build, easy to destroy. One act is worth a thousand words.

How to measure Psychological Safety

When Google started measuring psychological safety, Amy Edmondson suggested asking employees seven questions:

1) If you make a mistake on this team, is it often held against you?
2) Are members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
3) Do people on this team sometimes reject others for being different?
4) Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
5) Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
6) Would anyone on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
7) When working with members of this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

Use the questions above with a 5-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
Note: In question 3, I recommend replacing “being different” with “thinking differently,” as it feels less personal or judgmental.

With Psychological Safety, it’s imperative not to single people out. Don’t make issues about a particular person. Psychological Safety needs to be built and corrected as a team.

Perceptions and emotions vary. Don’t expect results to be stable or always grow in a positive direction. Ups and downs can be course correction or a change in direction.

Why bother measuring Psychological Safety?

High performing teams need Psychological Safety. It’s important to understand how your team is doing.

Start with a baseline with which to compare. The initial assessment usually surprises leaders and team members alike; we all believe that our teams are safer than they actually are ––no worries. The purpose of measuring is not to feel bad about it but to identify areas to focus on.

Don’t get obsessed with the measurement per se. Some companies want to create a Psychological Safety score and monitor constantly. Rather than feeling safe, that makes people feel observed and controlled.

Become better at observing your team member’s behaviors (and yours too).

Are people participating more? Does everyone get a chance to speak up? Are people embracing conflict positively or with a passive-aggressive approach? Are people honest or adapting to what the most senior people say?

Measuring is important, but focus on building the right habits, not just on monitoring an index.

How to Get You Started

  • Hold check-ins at the beginning of meetings. Ask participants, “What’s got your attention?” This simple practice creates empathy but also drives focus, people can let go of worries and distractions.
  • Start small & be patient. Increasing psychological safety requires time and consistency.
  • Design safe meetings. Silent Meetings or Progressive Brainstormings: being progressive makes it less intimidating for people to share their ideas. They liberate everyone’s hidden talents.
  • Leverage the power of duos. Creating accountability partnerships between two people is a quick and effective way of building a safe space – one duo at-a-time.
  • Hold a team retrospective. Take time to pause and reflect on how the team is doing. Focus on the overall collective dynamic rather than on individual behaviors. Great retros build safer teams.
  • Leverage the positive. Practice asking “What’s working at our team/ company?” But also, “What’s not working at our team/ company?” Create a habit of addressing conflict productively at work.
  • Take care of remote teams. Google research shows that remote teams need to meet in-person from time to time. Also, make time to strengthen personal connections and bonding.
  • Related Posts
  • Facilitate the Psychological Safety Ladder Canvas to map, assess, and improve psychological safety in your teams.

Increase Psychological Safety in Your Organization or Team

Join our workshop: How to build a fearless culture

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