Psychological Safety

The Importance of Psychological Safety & 5 Ways to Create It

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Introduction

To the cynics amongst you, psychological safety might sound like a way to wrap up ‘snowflakes’ in cotton wool and protect them from the big bad world out there. It’s probably not the ideal label. However, psychological safety isn’t about being soft on people or making work nice and cosy. Years of both scientific and academic research into the subject prove that quite the opposite is true. So, what’s it all about?

The Origins of Psychological Safety

Amy Edmundsen, a professor at Harvard Business School, was the first person to coin the term ‘psychological safety’ in her influential 1999 paper, titled ‘Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.’ She has spent the past 20+ years undertaking further research into this field and believes it’s even more important in today’s work environment than it was 20 years ago. She defines it as:

“…a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Why Psychological Safety is Important – The Findings of Project Aristotle

In more recent research Google wanted to discover what made certain teams more effective than others.

Researchers studied 180 different teams over several years but simply couldn’t find any obvious patterns to explain why some were more successful than others. Having similar or different educational backgrounds seemed to make no difference. Socialising outside of work seemed to make no difference. What hobbies you enjoyed seemed to make no difference. So what was it about?

Finally, they spotted a pattern. They realised that effectiveness depended on the cultural norms of the group – those unwritten rules embedded in every team and organisation. And the most impactful by a big margin? Those that resulted in psychological safety.

The Neuroscience of Psychological Safety

IIn those 20+ years we have also learnt more about the human brain than ever before.

We know the hugely negative impact of fear, mistrust and shame. We know the stress and tension these emotions cause. We know that the stress hormone cortisol blocks the neural pathways to our pre-frontal cortex or executive brain – home of our higher human powers. We know that that dramatically limits our cognitive abilities – rationality, flexibility, problem-solving, creativity, even empathy for others. In other words, we know these survival emotions dramatically reduce our effectiveness.

When we don’t experience those emotions, when we feel psychologically safe, we open up rather than close down. We can be open-minded rather than defensive. We have the confidence to speak up, proffer our opinion, challenge the status quo rather than keeping our views and ideas to ourselves. We can be collaborative rather than protective. And so on.

Which behaviours would you rather have in your team, I wonder?

Why Feeling Psychologically Safe Is Hard

However, as a child, I was taught that I should be “seen and not heard”.

As a pupil, I had to raise my hand if I wanted to ask a question and was mocked by my school friends if I asked a “stupid” question.

Entering the world of work in the 1980s, and especially the advertising industry, there was a very strong command and control hierarchy which you challenged at your peril. I did and nearly lost my job!

Now, in 2020, we talk about less hierarchy, more fluid structures, inclusive cultures, empowered employees and so on. Yet in the majority of cases, the actions still belie the words.

So how as leaders can you create psychological safety in a world of constant change and where fear of speaking up is often deeply embedded in our psyche?

5 Ways to Create Psychological Safety

1. Show Your Vulnerability

Vulnerability wasn’t a word we would have ever discussed in relation to leaders in the 1980s. Surely, leaders need to be perceived as tough, confident, unshakeable, not vulnerable?

However, when we fail to show vulnerability as leaders, we set ourselves up as perfect or infallible. We make ourselves appear superhuman – an icon to be worshipped and revered. Something your team can only aspire to, but never reach.

The opposite of vulnerable is impregnable – like a fortress or a buttress. There’s an impenetrable wall around you. Your team can’t reach you, they can’t get close to you, they can’t understand you. They feel inferior and weak in comparison.

I did a talk a couple of weeks ago on resilience and one of the lovely pieces of feedback I received was:

“In showing your vulnerability, it made us feel so much better.  It made us feel that you really understood our situation and weren’t standing in judgement over us.”

The last 5 words sum up what a lack of vulnerability means to others.

2. Showcase Humility

Humility is closely aligned to vulnerability but whilst vulnerability shows you’re not perfect, the sub-text of humility is that you don’t think you know it all.

If someone acts like they know it all, then you’re not going to challenge them, are you? You know the type. Those people who are addicted to being right. The ones who always have to have the last word. The team member who will argue black is white rather than admit they’re wrong. Ultimately you get worn down by them. You can’t be bothered to speak up because you know you will be shouted down or, worse still, ignored.

These are the command and control bosses who in theory no longer exist, but there are a lot more of them out there in 2020 than we or they would like to admit!

One of the best ways to showcase humility is simply to ask open questions, both about yourself and the task at hand.

“How did I do?”
“What could I have done differently?”
“How would you approach this?”
“What would you have done differently?”

And so on.

3. Practise Empathy

One of my favourite definitions of empathy comes from Carl Rogers, an American psychologist and one of the founders of humanistic or person-centred therapy.  He said there are 3 key elements to empathy:

  1. Showing unconditional positive regard to another ie non-judgement
  2. To listen accurately ie able to reflect thoughts and feelings
  3. Able to take on perspective of another person ie actually experience the feelings, thoughts and meanings ascribed

When I first encountered this, I thought: “Wow!  That’s hard!”

We are so quick to judge – in fact, it’s part of our evolutionary hard-wiring – it’s how we survive.

We are not typically good listeners. We pretend to listen whilst remaining in our own heads preoccupied by our internal dialogue, concerns and priorities. We pretend to listen whilst multi-tasking, looking at our phones, reading our e-mails, cooking the dinner. We rarely focus intently on what another person is saying.

Plus, it’s hard to truly see the world through another person’s eyes. We are so wrapped up in our own worlds, so entrenched in our own values, beliefs and perceptions, often so overwhelmed with our own emotions and issues that this seems quite impossible.

But even doing one of these three things on a regular basis would make a massive difference to the way people in your team feel. They will feel heard and understood.

4. Frame Mistakes As Learning Opportunities

One of the biggest downsides of not creating psychological safety is that people are afraid to make mistakes, or worse still in their eyes, fail. Not only does this stifle creativity and innovation, but it can also result in a cover-up culture.

We don’t talk about trial and error for nothing. When you’re trying something new, there will often be errors.  We try something and it might not work out, but if we don’t try it, we’ll never know.

If creativity, adaptability and innovation are business critical behaviours and leading drivers of competitive edge then people need to feel comfortable about making mistakes and even failing.

Be curious about why something didn’t work out. Make time for the team to explore the learnings from it and to consider what could be done differently next time.

5. Use Caring Candour

One of the most common concerns around the whole concept of psychological safety is whether it means that you can no longer hold people to account. In fact, quite the opposite is true. In creating psychological safety, you can afford to be much more direct with people, you can be much more candid about their performance.

I often talk about caring candour in my Coaching sessions. If people know you as a person, if they believe that you understand them and have their best interests at heart, if they know you’re not standing in judgement over them or looking to apportion blame, then feedback is no longer a frightening prospect. They don’t need to put their barriers up or get defensive.

The truth is that people respect openness and honesty.  It engenders trust – the fulcrum of great leadership.

Summary

Psychological safety is a term that has been around for decades. However, it is being talked about a lot more now in organisations than ever before. Advances in neuroscience mean we know the impact of survival emotions such as fear on our ability to engage, contribute and perform. Creating psychologically safe working environments is the best way to ensure your teams and your organisations thrive.

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