#9 Psychological Safety

Building psychological safety requires us to be very aware of our own behaviour, as we create a place where team members feel able to bring up problems and admit mistakes.

Today I thought we could talk about psychological safety. How about that?

It’s the one commonality that Google found all their high performing teams shared during their project Aristotle. They in turn had come across this concept when looking at the research carried out by Amy Edmondson. And I’ll be talking a mainly today about what I’ve taken from one of ther books about one of her books before we leave the café today…

If you are like me and scout the internet and literature for ways of making teams as strong as they can be, you will have come across the concept of psychological safety before, but just to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing, here’s a handy definition my Edmondson herself:

“An interpersonal climate where people feel able to express ideas, ask questions, quickly acknowledge mistakes, raise concerns. And where they feel responsible for doing so.”

A nice list, isn’t it…?

Yes, psychological safety sounds all very well and utopian, but how do we get there? What can we do in our team to nurture this wonderful atmosphere itself where we can express ideas, ask questions, quickly acknowledge mistakes, raise concerns?

Well, for a start we need to recognise that we’re not actually looking for a wonderful atmosphere, because where there is psychological safety, there will be uncomfortable conversations; there will probably be conflict at some point. Part of this safety is being able to own up to mistakes (really uncomfortable) and bring up concerns, which might well refer to work done by other people, hence the conflict bit, remember that some conflict is healthy, as long as it’s helping us improve our work or our process. So, although psychological safety sounds like the best thing to strive for in theory, in practice, it can be quite difficult to get there – but I have a feeling it’s worth it.

Right, let’s see whether we can look at how to get to this healthy, productive state in our team, whether we’re sharing the same office space or not because psychological safety should not be the domain of only collocated teams. Those teams where people work away from base or where people work in different countries should strive for.

There are certain behaviours that lead to psychological safety in groups. When we are in an official position of leadership, or even it we are an emergent leader in our team, it helps to role-model these behaviours. People will still look to us to find out what is or isn’t acceptable in a team. (And if you’re interested in this, you might want to check out episode 7 of this podcast on Team Norms.)

In “Teaming to Innovate”, Amy Edmondson talks about the leadership behaviours that build psychological safety. I’ll list them now first and then we’ll think through them one by one. When I say think through them, I really encourage you to do so. What would it mean for you to role model that behaviour?

How would YOU do it? It might look different for example in a collocated team or in a virtual team. It might even look different depending on your profession.

How comfortable would you be with that with role modeling certain behaviours? At the same time, you might also think of highlighting these behaviours if there are already occurring in your team, by thanking the person exhibiting it or giving them room to repeat that kind of helpful behaviour.

So, here’s the list:

Be accessible

Acknowledge limits (ie you don’t know everything)

Display fallibility (ie show tolerance to failure)
Invite participation

Frame failures as learning opportunities

Use direct language

Set boundaries

So, this list is by no means exclusive to those leading teams in the same physical space, this is also something that can be encouraged via written team communication, or video or audio meetings. The principles are the same but the actions we carry out will be different.

Let’s take the first point: Be accessible. In an office, this might mean giving someone their full attention when they’re talking to you (look away from your computer and your phone); it might also mean letting people know when and how they can contact you – this will go for all kinds of set ups; I’m sure you can think of other examples relevant to your own situation.

But let me be clear: this does not mean that you end up just being there for other people and never get your own work done, or that you don’t set any boundaries – being clear about when you are and when you’re not accessible and ready to interact with others is crucial to building an environment where people feel free to reach out. If I’m afraid of interrupting you when you’d really not like to be disturbed, well, I might not interrupt you at all.

In the article “Collaborative Overload” by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant in The JAN/FEB 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload,

the authors mention that “At many companies the proportion hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own. Performance suffers as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks.”

If we’re always available to our team members, when do we find the time to reflect, to check in with ourselves or to concentrate on our work?

So, being accessible might mean setting boundaries, so let’s look at that aspect of building psychological safety.

There are always boundaries in a team and organisation around what’s acceptable or not. When we talk about a team, we tend to refer to these unwritten rules as “norms” and when we talk about an organisation, we usually refer to its “culture”.

If somebody always makes sarcastic remarks when other people try to raise concerns, the atmosphere will not feel that safe. So, in addition to role modeling behaviour, we might also want to reward behaviour that contributes to a prolific team atmosphere and call out those behaviours that aren’t. Noticed I said “prolific” and not “positive” team atmosphere. I’m very weary of people that talk about the need to be “positive” because this might start to deter people from bringing up concerns, admitting to mistakes, pointing out threats… “Positive” has a connotation that we are capable of success, which we need to believe in, but it also suggests that if we point out those things we need to improve on, we might be seen as “negative” – and nobody likes that label.

You see, this is not easy, is it…

Ok, let’s move on.

Another difficult one to follow, unless you’re used to it: Acknowledge your limits, basically admitting that you don’t know everything. This one can feel hard if we tend towards perfectionism, but it can do wonders when building trust. (By the way, there is a whole other episode in this podcast about trust, so do check that one out.) Part of the power of admitting that you don’t know everything is that you are role-modelling transparency and admitting where you might need someone else’s input to cover your missing knowledge or skills gap; and it also makes it feel ok for others to ask for help when they might need it.

Now, 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t need to pause here and add that admitting that we don’t know something is sometimes more difficult to do if we are communicating in writing with someone else. There is the longevity of our message (if we are in an organisation with a blame culture, or a very competitive culture, we might fear that admitting our limits might come back to bite us) and also if levels of trust are low, the message “I don’t know” might be taken for “I don’t want to help you”. So if your team relies heavily on written communication, worth picking the times when you share your limitations.

So, once more, when looking at this advice, think about what you are comfortable with doing, and if thinking of showing your limits makes you a little uneasy, first of all think of Why, and then see what kind of behaviour might be helpful to both you and your team members. Really worth looking into.

I think in a similar line to do this is another behaviour in building psychological safety and that is Display Fallibility – what goes for the previous point, goes for this one as well. In person meetings or video calls, even audio are probably the best to show yourself as the human person that you are – you can explain your points, pinpoint where your weaknesses are, where you might need help and you can invite questions.

And “Invite questions” leads me to the next point, Invite participation. Now, we’re not just talking meetings here. Invite participation in decisions, in getting feedback, in innovating, in designing how you all work together. And ask thoughtful, insightful questions – especially questions that you don’t know the answer to. There’s nothing that makes me more uncomfortable than being asked a question by someone who thinks they already know the answer. Why ask me then? So ask questions when you want to find out what someone else thinks, not when you want to prove a point, and definitely not when you’re being sneaky about people buying into your decisions.

Ok, I think that’s quite a personal point we touched on there, let’s move on.

Use direct language. Well, ha, that follows on quite nicely from the previous point about asking leading questions. Again, you’ll have to trust your common sense on this one, because some people have difficulty with direct language, they might not be used to it. It might be perceived as threatening or even accusatory.

So I would say, make sure that your message is clear when you communicate; this builds trust and avoids people being left thinking, What did she really mean? Is he really sharing what he’s thinking?….

And finally, one of the most difficult ones I think, because it touches on lots of things we might not be used to doing:

Frame failures as learning opportunities.
Ah, failures, we don’t like failing. I definitely don’t like being wrong and doing things wrong; however, worse than doing something wrong is being so paralysed by the thought of it that we continue doing things that no longer work, just because we fear taking the wrong step when moving forwards.

So, if people try stuff out and mistakes follow, let’s see what we can all learn from that. This might need quite a lot of self-awareness, as the last thing we want to do is show any signs of disapproval when people point out something that’s not working out, or when they own up to a mistake.

And framing the failure as a learning opportunity doesn’t just mean, oh, we can learn it didn’t work and move on. Once more, I come back to asking questions. Or even further, think back to Kolb’s cycle of learning through experience. Something happens, we reflect on it, we think through why it was like that, what conditions contributed to it, how our actions contributed to it, we start to think about how we could have done it differently and the next time a similar situation turns up, we do something different. That’s learning, in this case learning from mistakes.

This is very painful though, because sometimes we just want to sweep something that went wrong under the carpet. But if we have a process for it, it we prepare in advance, for when failures or mistakes happen, or even better, if we get used to reviewing our work together, all this might be easier.

So whether your team is together in the office all the time, or whether you are spread all over the city or even the world, get used to reviewing your work, so that you can all learn from each other, and so that you get used to getting things wrong as part of innovating and improving how you work.

Finally, let me recommend Amy Edmondson’s book. Just to remind you, it’s called “Teaming to Innovate” and it’s quite a short read and it has some great examples of how to build psychological safety, of how to work across cultures, through conflict and how to deal with and use failure.

Recognise that teaming up is interpersonally challenging as well as rewarding.

Please note that the book links in this post are Affiliate Links.

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