When we talk about diversity in the workplace, we usually think in terms of age and gender. But what about the important differences in personalities, communication styles and approaches? All too often, people don’t speak up at work because it doesn’t feel safe – and the consequences can be far reaching. In this post and podcast, we look at the idea of ‘psychological safety’, and how we can create a framework that really honours the differences people bring to a team.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, coined the phrase ‘psychological safety’ in a TEDx talk where she spoke about teams that can trust they can put themselves out there, ask questions, make mistakes, learn from them – and know that it’s okay.
She defined psychological safety as a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people can learn and become their full contributing selves.
As well as creating a reassuring level of trust, psychological safety is important as it encourages diversity of thinking which supports high levels of creativity and innovation. And when channels are open and we’re engaged in open conversation, it also allows us to spot problems, manage red flags early and focus on solutions. Here are six structures you can put in place to develop a stronger sense of psychological safety in your team.
As a team leader, and as a member of a larger leadership team yourself, start thinking about psychological safety with reflective questions like these:
‘What am I doing to create psychological safety for myself?’
‘Am I creating an environment where I feel safe?’
‘Am I asking for feedback about what I'm doing well and what I'm not doing well?’
‘Am I making myself available to my team to create that environment?’
‘Do I have a colleague with whom I can speak openly about things?’
‘What am I like and what do I need?’
When you’ve asked yourself these questions, go and ask your people either in a team meeting or during one-on-ones. Remember to frame the conversation as a learning process, giving them the rationale behind it, explaining why it's so important to have everyone’s voices heard.
Check whether you need to refocus or establish clearer accountabilities. See if everyone in the team knows how to recognise when you’re on or off track. If you’re going off track as a team, decide how you’ll hold each other to account. This conversation is about establishing the checks and measures so when you’re in the thick of things, you have a pre-agreed reference point.
Start every meeting or team arrangement by checking in to see how everyone is feeling. This fosters a strong sense of belonging and investment. It's not enough to throw a casual, ‘How’re we all feeling today?’ Go around the table ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak, not just the loudest members or the extroverts.
This is a social contract establishing how your team intends to communicate and behave. For example, ‘We're inclusive, we're open and direct, we speak to each other with respect.’ High performing teams know how to talk and listen to each other.
Think about mini experiments the team could take on that would encourage people to think creatively. For example, try reporting to a stakeholder in a better or more engaging way by asking how we could provide this information differently.
It can be strangely empowering to admit a shortcoming. If you really want to create an environment where people feel free to be their whole selves, they shouldn’t see you as superhuman. As team leader you’re a role model but you’re still only human and that means you don’t know everything and sometimes make mistakes!
People leaders who embrace diversity and accommodate different styles create a sense of psychological safety when they invite everyone's input in the way that’s right for them. By promoting a culture where these conversations are commonplace, conflicts will be dealt with rather than swept under the table, questions will be asked, mistakes and challenges will be made. Someone will be congratulated for a difference of opinion. Your team will blossom.
When people can speak openly and directly in a respectful way, without fear of being judged or diminished for being who they are – that’s psychological safety. You’ll know you're building it when your team members give each other feedback, share information, keep others up to date, step in when someone isn't quite sure how to do things. This is how teams should operate.
We invite you to have a conversation with your team around psychological safety. You can begin by asking the simple question, ‘What would it mean for you to feel safe in this environment?’ Start capturing their ideas and see where that takes you. You could share this post or podcast in a team meeting or show Amy Edmondson’s TED talk and let it spark a discussion. Free your people up to really engage and not be afraid of each other. Let us know how you go.
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