I came across the concept of team psychological safety over a year ago. It’s something that really resonated with me, mainly from my own experience of being a team member, leading my own team and more recently in my work with teams.
As I get stuck into my research on team coaching for my MA in Coaching, the debate on whether team coaching is most effective when focused on team tasks/processes/strategies or the relational/interpersonal dynamics is a really interesting one. The more I read about team psychological safety, the more I’m starting to think that this is a keystone for teams. I feel without it, focussing on team tasks/processes/strategies isn’t going to be as impactful.
Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School is the key researcher and author in team psychological safety. I’m very alive to the fact that I have started to become her biggest fangirl and I’m in danger of simply regurgitating her work to you – but there are some really practical findings in her research that I feel are worth sharing with you all.
So let’s start by exploring what is meant by team psychological safety …
It’s completely normal that we want to appear smart, capable and helpful in the eyes of our fellow team mates. In fact, it’s our natural preference to seek to avoid any behaviour that may lead to embarrassment, rejection or being disliked. To avoid these situations we make numerous micro-assessments each day on whether it’s ‘safe’ to take a risk in what we say and do with the people in our teams. If we sense it’s not safe and there could be a threat of embarrassment, rejection or negative consequences from others, we typically say nothing (Edmondson, 2019).
We don’t ask for help, even though we know we need it.
We don’t admit to mistakes, even though we know we should.
We don’t say if we disagree or have an alternative view, even though the outcome would be more innovative or better performing.
We don’t raise our concern, even though it could avoid an error being made.
Instead, we ‘save face’. We protect our image. The consequences of doing this, leads us and our team to underperform, we feel dissatisfied/frustrated and we potentially put others/the organisation at risk, in some cases with fatal consequences.
85% of people studied could recall at least one occasion where they felt unable to raise a concern, even though they believed the issue was important.Amy Edmondson
If your team has low psychological safety, performance is going to be hampered, innovation and creativity will be stifled, continuous improvement non-existent and people are going to be struggling.
This is where you start to see low motivation, morale and disengagement – which typically leads to absence, turnover, inefficiencies, poor quality, missed deadlines and low productivity.
More troubling, the team will not have the ability to deal with the scale and rate of change, challenge, ambiguity and complexity that the world of work demands from us.
What does a team with high psychological safety look like?
Without fear we…
- say what we really think and feel, we bring up issues, problems and concerns happily
- share a different viewpoint and disagree, with the ability to discuss it and explore and build on viewpoints with curiosity
- freely admit a mistake and failure, without it being held against us
- say if we lack knowledge, without worry of being seen as incompetent
- ask for help and support, with team members being willing to assist
- appreciate, recognise and value the skills that each team member brings
We can only do this if we respect and feel respected in return by other team members. If there is trust. If we feel confident that team members will not hold what we say against us and we care about each other as people.
Is it just about being nice?
Edmondson is really clear psychological safety isn’t about just being nice or having fun – “it’s not about agreeing for the sake of being nice, it’s not about unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say. It’s about candor, making it possible for productive disagreement, free exchange of ideas, enables people with differing views to speak candidly about what’s bothering them – there is a willingness and ability to engage in productive conflict so the team can learn, perform and be better from different points of view” Edmondson, 2019.
What can we do to improve it in our teams?
The benefit of teams having psychological safety is hopefully apparent and is a ‘no brainer’ for organisations – so what can you start to do to cultivate psychological safety within your teams…
The role of the team leader
Even in organisations where there is a strong culture, values and great ways of working Edmondson found there will be pockets of high and low psychological safety. This is because it’s a team phenomenon. So the role of team leader is fundamental in starting to cultivate this environment. How often (in the words of Stephen Covey) do you seek to understand, before being understood? How often do you welcome new ideas and explore them? How often do you ask for help/share your fallibility?
Think about how you are running your team meetings – How are connections being created? How is the meeting facilitating equal opportunity for everyone to speak? How are reactions to mistakes, issues, concerns dealt with? How are new ideas listened to and built upon?
How often are you reflecting on situations and experiences and thinking about what went well and what you could do to make it even better? One of the ways we learn as adults is to take time to reflect on our experiences – What is stopping you from saying what you really want to say when you are with the team? Why are you feeling that way? What part can you play in making your team ‘safer’?
How DBKT can help!
We are a people consultancy who work with businesses to elevate their leaders and accelerate team performance to thrive in the changing world of work.
The services we offer are:
- Getting your leaders fit for the future – through learning and development and 1-1 coaching
- Unlocking the power of your teams – with team coaching and innovative problem solving
- Aligning your people practices – to underpin the investment in your leaders and teams to support, reinforce and embed the changes you are making today, to meet the challenge of the future
Get in touch…
I would be very happy to talk more about team psychological safety and your team or leadership challenges!
Drop me a message on firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 07443438204
Edmondson, A. (2019) The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth. Wiley:New Jersey
Edmondson, A. (1999) Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Administrative Science Quarterly, vol.44, pp. 350-383