Is your team at work psychologically safe?
Think for a moment about your work and the team you work with and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do we feel comfortable in team meetings asking about things we do not know or understand? Or do we generally try to maintain an image of perfection?
- Do we feel comfortable raising difficult issues or concerns in team meetings? Can we express reservations about specific pieces of work, about ‘how things are done here’ or about how well the team works together? Or do these conversations take place informally outside team meetings?
- What happens when mistakes, near misses, failures and critical incidents happen? Is habitual to distance ourselves so we are not blamed? Or are they seen as opportunities for team learning?
- How often do people give and receive feedback? Are others who are not members of the team invited to give feedback on work?
- Are all team members invited to contribute irrespective of their rank or job title in meetings? Or is it only a select few who consistently dominate meetings?
- Do I feel that my skills and talents are valued and utilized? Are we encouraged to contribute in any way we feel able to? Or do we feel we are expected to stay strictly within the parameters of our roles and to seek permission for doing anything else?
- Do I feel like my contributions and efforts are valued and supported by the team? Or have I ever felt that my contributions and efforts were compromised by other team members?
- Do team members feel comfortable asking for help when they need it? Or is there an unspoken expectation that everyone should figure it out for themselves?
- How well do team members know each other as people outside work? Or do we only know each others clock-in-clock-out personas?
Given your answers, how would you say that correlates to how happy you are with your team, your place in it, and your team’s performance?
Researchers in academia and in business have found that these kinds of questions give us an insight into a very important dimension of teamwork: psychological safety. (Harri Kaloudis, 2019)
Read about the surprising benefits to the bottom line, and not-so-surprising benefits to employee moral of fostering psychological safety in the workplace.
A team feels psychologically safe to its members when they share the belief that within the team they will not be exposed to interpersonal or social threats to their self or identity, their status or standing, their career or employment when engaging in learning behaviors such as asking for help, seeking feedback, admitting errors or lack of knowledge, trying something new or voicing work-related dissenting views.
Interpersonal or social threats are things like: being branded negatively, (e.g. as ignorant, incompetent, or disruptive); being responded to with ridicule, rejection, blame, disrespect, anger, intimidation, disregard; or being punished (e.g. with negative performance appraisals, unfavorable work assignments or reduced promotion prospects).
Research has shown that the absence of such threats is strongly associated with team members bringing their whole self to work, expressing their creativity, talents and skills without self-censoring and self-silencing and learning actively on the job developing their capabilities and those of their team.
Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and the most prominent academic researcher in this field, defines psychological safety as “the shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”  and explains that “team psychological safety involves but goes beyond interpersonal trust; it describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves” .
In the simplest of terms, you feel psychologically safe in your team if you feel at ease with admitting to a mistake, pointing out a mistake made by a team member, speaking about work-related matters without censoring yourself and trying out new things.
[1 Page 350 in Edmondson, A. 1999. Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44 (2): 350–383
2 Page 354 in Edmondson, A. 1999 as above]
The business case for psychological safety
Described in this way, there seems to be a clear case for fostering and cultivating psychological safety in teams as a matter of employee wellbeing, welfare and job satisfaction and even a moral case on the basis of the values of employee freedom and empowerment.
These should be adequate reasons for any organization to take notice of psychological safety.
What Edmondson and others have demonstrated, however, is that there appears to also be a strong business case for promoting and cultivating psychological safety in work teams.
Studies have found that psychological safety is strongly associated with objective (e.g. sales revenue) and subjective indicators of team performance (e.g. ratings of team performance by team members and managers, customer satisfaction with team products).
The strongest effect of psychological safety on team performance appears to be through its beneficial effects on team learning. Studies report that it enables
- faster adoption of new technologies (process innovation)
- faster adaptation to new market circumstances and customer requirements, early identification of potentially catastrophic risks
- faster development of innovative products
In Project Aristotle, an analysis conducted by Google, their People Analytics found that psychological safety was the aspect most reliably shared by high-performing teams.
It was amongst a set of five traits that separated high-performing teams from the others. The remaining four were: structure and clarity, dependability, meaning, and impact). It was also the most foundational of these traits. Put another way: without psychological safety, you cannot have a high-performing team.