What is psychological safety?
Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson coined the phrase “psychological safety” in 1999. She defines the term to mean “an absence of interpersonal fear” and “a shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In practice, this plays out in certain behaviors exhibited by the team.
Psychologically safe team members are likely to:
- Feel comfortable sharing dissenting opinions
- Openly bring mistakes to the table
- Take risks
- Show creativity
- Recognize and respect each others’ differences both personally and professionally
- Celebrate wins and failures while using each as a learning opportunity
- Communicate with frequency, transparency and vulnerability
Psychologically unsafe team members are likely to:
- Micromanage or feel micromanaged
- Shut down new ideas
- Operate in silos
- Point the finger or place blame for failures
- Hide mistakes
- Avoid new ways of doing things
Why is it important?
Psychological safety is important to organizations as it forms the foundation of trust that is necessary for quality relationships, smart risk taking, open curiosity, better decision making, and candid feedback. When people feel psychologically safe they are more likely to admit mistakes that can then be learned from as they are not afraid of bad reactions. They are more likely to share feedback with peers as they know it will be responded to with open curiosity rather than aggression. They are more likely to take ownership of issues and discuss ways to do things better in the future as they know failure is a chance to learn. All of this is made possible by a team that feels psychologically safe in the work environment.
Why is it hard to build?
Psychological safety can be hard to build and maintain at an organization because it is more than a training, a talk, a value or a phrase written on the wall. It is an ongoing commitment to a set of behaviors. These behaviors have to be continuous, and if they are not performed correctly there needs to be productive apologies. No one action will solve for psychological safety.
The term also gets misused often in the corporate world which means that people may understand it differently or think it means a different set of behaviors. It can be misconstrued to mean a team that always agrees, always says yes or is always nice to each other. These misconceptions can hurt your organization’s attempt to build psychological safety.
What are things you can do?
The first step is to bring folks onboard through a common understanding of psychological safety. Then get them to commit. You can build the understanding by showing your team what it is and why it is important to the organization. It is helpful to prompt a conversation to get people to brainstorm the behaviors they would like to see to promote psychological safety. This can be done through training or simply a discussion. The end of the discussion should result in a commitment.
The next step is to foster psychological safety in the day to day. Help your team understand the types of behaviors expected out of a psychologically safe team. Show them examples. Be sure senior executives model the behavior. Give positive feedback when you see behaviors that support psychological safety so people continue doing them.
There are a few key things to avoid.
- Don’t be performative (ie all talk and no action). Be sure you and the leadership team are ready to commit to psychological safety before you introduce the topic to the team.
- Don’t lose all sense of boundaries or standards. Psychological safety does not mean avoiding hard conversations or relaxing performance standards. This is how psychological safety can get misconstrued.
- Don’t overshare in an attempt to show vulnerability.
- Don’t expect the team to do something the leadership team does not do. Ensure your leadership team is fully committed and ready to display the right behaviors.
How we can help
At Tandem, we are all about helping teams form strong relationships and feedback cultures. Quality feedback is a critical part of building psychological safety as it promotes vulnerability and candidness. Here are some ways Tandem can help:
- Ask for feedback: We make it easy to request feedback all within Slack. We also promote peer-to-peer feedback.
- Feedback evaluation: Our tool will help ensure people are giving each other timely, impact-driven feedback that is forward looking and helpful.