Wednesday, May 15, 2024

What Does Psychological Safety Mean

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Taking Risks Only Makes Sense When It Helps The Group

What is Psychological Safety, and How do you create Psychological Safety at Work?

If I feel comfortable enough to bring a loaded gun and put it casually on the conference room tablemy doing so actually creates both a physical and psychological danger.

In other words, some risky behavior actually threatens a groups psychological safety. So its false to conflate ones ability to take risks with psychological safety.

  • Speaking up with a point of view thats uncomfortable helps a group, because it pushes them to consider new ways of thinking. This is a risk worth taking.
  • But shouting down someone who says something uncomfortable is a risk as well. It takes courage. But its the kind of risk that cuts off dialogue, and reduces the potential for the group to make progress.

It actually takes more courage to sit with discomfort, coolly look at it, and make a judgment from a big picture standpointnot from short-term pain-avoidance.

And in order to make it feel safe to do that, we need to reduce some types of risks. As you can see, achieving real psychological safety is not quite as simple as we make it out to be.

The Difference Between Leadership And Management

Its important to recognise the difference between these two practices. The indubitable Grace Hopper once stated that You manage things, you lead people. What she meant is that management consists of all the processes, tools, and controls that need to exist in order for people to work effectively, whilst leadership is far larger in scope and consists of, for example, setting direction, making strategic decisions, supporting and motivating people, and elevating people in order to reach their highest potential.

In practice, this means that neither management nor leadership can be neglected.

Googles Project Aristotle was a turning point for psychological safety. It was enough proof for what we all intrinsically know that feeling safe to be yourself as part of a team, where youre able to contribute your ideas, admit mistakes, challenge others respectably, and try without fear of failure, is one of the most powerful aspects of human performance.

How Do We Measure It

In an attempt to make your team more successful, you first need to establish a baseline and measure improvements over time. You might think you have a good feel for your team, but its surprising what youll learn when you actually measure for psychological safety.

In order to measure this, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these questions:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?
  • Are members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  • Have people on this team sometimes rejected others for being different?
  • Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
  • Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
  • Would no one on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
  • When working with members of this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?
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    The History Of Psychological Safety

    First known to be mentioned by Schein and Bennis in the 1960s, psychological safety was first defined as group phenomenon that reduces interpersonal risk. To quote Schein and Benniss paper PERSONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE THROUGH GROUP METHODS : THE LABORATORY APPROACH in 1965, psychological safety reduces a persons anxiety about being basically accepted and worthwhile.

    Deming, in his 14 Points for Management, also raises the point of reducing fear of interpersonal risk taking in point 8: Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company. This highlights a growing change in sentiment at the time, away from reductionist and Taylorist views of workers towards more a progressive paradigm of empowerment and engagement to improve business outcomes.

    Wherever there is fear, there will be wrong figures.

    W E Deming, The New Economics.

    William Kahn, in 1990, renewed interest in psychological safety with his paper Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work where he described psychological safety as the ability for someone to employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally. At the same time, progressive management paradigms at the time such as safety culture and the Toyota Production System were emerging that introduced concepts such as the the Andon Cord, which empowers employees to raise issues or concerns around safety and process .

    Include Your Team In Decision Making

    Psychological Safety Meaning

    When making decisions, consult your team. Ask for their input, thoughts, and feedback. Not only will this help them feel included in the decision-making process, but it will build psychological safety and lead to better outcomes.

    Once a decision is made, explain the reasoning behind your decision. How did their feedback factor into the decision? What other considerations were made? Even if your employees dont agree, theyll appreciate the honesty and transparency behind how the decision was made.

    If youre a senior leader in the company, being inclusive and transparent is even more critical. The 2019 Employee Engagement Report found that a lack of trust in senior leadership is the number two driver of disengagement.

    When communicating decisions, be sure to highlight contributions from team members. If a certain idea or piece of feedback led to the decision or a successful outcome, acknowledge and celebrate that employees contribution.

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    How To Create Psychologically Safe Workplaces

    The following 10 tips will help you build psychological safety within your workplace.

  • Model Curiosity
  • Praise effort, not just results
  • Hold regular town hall meetings
  • Read on for a more detailed look at each of the steps you can take to build psychological safety at work.

    1. Model curiosity: Start conversations, encourage debate and ask your employees lots of questions. Doing these things encourages your workforce to speak up and promotes healthy discussion within the workplace.

    2. Acknowledge your own fallibility: If employees see their seniors admitting to their shortcomings, and showing a thirst to learn, they are more likely to do so themselves. Phrases like I may miss things I need your input are great for this.

    3. Give constructive feedback: Its vital that your employees do not feel criticised or stilted by your feedback. When giving feedback, try to draw on an individuals strengths whilst encouraging growth in areas requiring improvement.

    4. Make sure youre available and make sure your team knows it: An open-door policy is pointless if no-one comes to the door. Make sure your team know that you are there to help. When they do approach you, try to be approachable, open-minded and non-judgmental.

    5. Invite feedback: Being open to feedback shows your team that youre confident in your ability, but also flexible in your approach and open to change.

    When people do speak up, makes sure they know that their ideas or suggestions are being taken seriously.

    Benefits Of Psychological Safety

    When it comes to performance, creating a trusting environment is essential. The Harvard Business Review has shared multiple studies that describe psychological safety as an important factor in high-performing teams, and the teams who are most effective at problem solving have been shown to share two common traits:cognitive diversity and psychological safety.

    Not only does psychological safety improve your teams performance, it also enhances employee engagement. When team members feel that their insights are appreciated they:

    • Feel like a respected part of their team
    • See the value of their work
    • Feel accepted for who they are and the unique strengths they bring

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    Is It Possible To Be Too Psychologically Safe

    In short, no. However, its important to distinguish psychological safety from existential or other kinds of safety. A mountaineering team climbing K2 require very high degrees of psychological safety in order to know that their teammates will support each other, and make it safe to raise concerns, however small. Their existential safety is very low, and theyre in real danger of dying on the mountain: but their high psychological safety aids in maximising their chance of success, and not dying on the mountain.

    The lesson: maximise the psychological safety of your teams, but do not shelter them from the real world. Building psychological safety doesnt mean hiding the challenges ahead quite the opposite.

    What Are The Four Stages Of Psychological Safety

    Psychological Safety: What is it and What Does it Mean?

    Psychological safety isnt inherent its something thats intentionally cultivated and encouraged. Typically, that process is broken down into four distinct phases or stages.

    Stage #1: Inclusion safety

    One of our more primordial fears is being excluded from other people. Thats why stage one grants us one of these basic needs: feeling like were part of the group.

    Stage one focuses on the potential for alienation that might result from new contexts. For example, an individual suffering from imposter syndrome might feel that entering any new group in a work context could out them as not being worthy of making contributions.

    With inclusion safety, however, the individual learns that they are on equal footing with their team members. From a leaders perspective, youll want to establish a sense of equality.

    An example of this is a TV writers room, wherein the best jokethe one that gets the most laughsis the one that goes in, regardless of rank. Writers frequently talk about this being the case at The Simpsons.

    All we had to do was please ourselves, John Swartzwelder, famed Simpsons writer, told the New Yorker.

    Inclusion safety is all about cultivating that same environment, company-wide. The work, not the social hierarchy, is the true priority. The feeling of inclusion also helps avoid employee overload and encourages each employee to feel a sense of investment.

    Stage #2: Learner safety

    Stage #3: Contributor safety

    Stage #4: Challenger safety

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    How To Build Psychological Safety

    How do you build up psychologically safe teams that are also high performing? Here are a few suggestions from Amy Edmondson:

    • Frame the work as a learning problem not an execution problem by frequently asking your team what are we learning from this?
    • Acknowledge your own fallibility, encourage your team to tell you what you might be missing.
    • Model curiosity by asking lots of questions like: what worked and didnt work for you in our collaboration?

    To measure a teams level of psychological safety, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
  • You can read Amy Edmondson study and more in her book The Fearless Organization

  • Asking for feedback on delivery.
  • Measuring psychological safety.
  • From the Management 3.0 perspective we can do a lot to create a psychologically safe workplace. Using a gardening metaphor, nurture the soil, then plants can develop by themselves. Creating a safe workplace is part of nurturing the soil.

    Honest Feedback Is Paramount For Moving Forward Efficiently And Effectively While Removing Barriers For Innovation

    If leaders sanction or talk down to people giving critical feedback they are unlikely to receive honest feedback in the future.

    Remember, you cannot direct the behavior of others directly. What you can do is change your own actions, reactions, and behavior to initiate different behavior in people around you.


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    The crucial point is that people tend to act in ways that inhibit learning when they face the potential of threat or embarrassment . Toxic leadership or employing leaders who fail to build trust are, therefore, extremely costly as psychological safety issues in the workplace destroy interpersonal relations and damage organizations at large. Emotional safety in the workplace and trust-building in teams and across teams should be of high priority. With Edmonson employees withholding valuable information and knowledge in a knowledge society that holds knowledge as its greatest value is helping none!

    One way to call for feedback is to follow this one leaders example as he expresses how he after every presentation asks for feedback on delivery. It disarms difficult conversations and increases trust in leaders. He specifically poses the following questions :

    • What worked and what didnt work in my delivery?
    • How did it feel to hear this message?
    • How could I have presented it more effectively?

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    Why Psychological Safety At Work Matters And How To Create It


    Stay up to date with new resources and insights.

    Thank you for your interest in BetterUp.

    I remember back when I read the Atlantic cover story, “Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women.” As a Latina working for a tech company, this story struck a real chord with me.

    This, along with othernews stories, revealed to me that women are still underrepresented in the tech industry. The evidence is alarming, but the underlying reasons are even more so.

    According to the Center for Talent Innovation, undermining behavior from managers is a major factor in women dropping out of tech. In fact, asurvey found that 87% of women had witnessed demeaning comments from their colleagues. And 66% felt excluded from key social and networking opportunities because of gender.

    And unfortunately, little evidence that diversity programs affect lasting change. Some companies continue with the same one-and-done approaches, like mandatory diversity training.

    Its vital that companies rethink traditional approaches. This includes investing in creating and fostering psychologically safe environments.

    In this article, well cover what psychological safety is, why its important, and how leaders can promote it in the workplace.

    Why Does Psychological Safety Matter

    What is psychological safety and why is it the key to great teamwork ...

    Teams that feel empowered to share their perspectives with each other, especially when their opinions differ from the rest of the group, are able to more fully leverage the knowledge and talent that each member brings to the team. These teams are more likely to take initiative and consider the full picture of each situation. This in turn enables the team to innovate and find effective solutions.

    Psychological safety is also critical to a team’s ability to give and receive candid, respectful feedback. If your organization is looking to build a stronger feedback culture, take a look at employee perceptions of psychological safety as a starting point.

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    Ways To Create Psychological Safety In The Workplace

    Whats the secret behind high-performing teams? Its psychological safety, according to a Google study called Project Aristotle.

    In the workplace, psychological safety is the shared belief that its safe to take interpersonal risks as a group. These risks include speaking up when theres a problem with the team dynamics and sharing creative ideas, among others.

    The 2019 People Management Report found that managers who create psychologically safe work environments are less likely to experience employee turnover on their teams. If you want to retain top performers, ensure psychological safety across the whole company. Like any major initiative, it needs to start at the top with executive buy-in.

    Not sure if your employees feel psychologically safe? Start by measuring psychological safety in the workplace. If you find that you need to create a more safe environment in the workplace, read on.

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    Reduce Fear And Improve Performance

    Psychological safety in teams isnt an exact science. But its not something thats totally out of your control, either. If you want your team to be both happy and high-performing , then fostering psychological safety at work needs to be at the top of your priority list.

    Sign up for a free trial of Wrike to see how it can help you boost safety and comfort with every new project.

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    S To Foster Psychological Safety At Work

    Psychological safety plans a vital role in running an effective, high-performing, and resilient team. If you’re in a leadership position and want to foster a safe work environment, here are the 3 steps Edmondson recommends to get you started.

  • Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem, that requires the minds and voices of every member of your team
  • To encourage changes at the team level, start by modeling the behaviors you wish to see yourself. Show the team itâs OK to make mistakes and be vulnerable. Acknowledging your own fallibility will help encourage your team to speak up themselves
  • Model curiosity and a growth mindset, making it the status quo by having team leaders ask a lot of questions too
  • The Difference Between Psychological Safety And Trust

    Psychological Safety

    Ultimately, psychological safety is trust among a group, rather than just between two people.

    This means that the bigger the group, the harder it will be to maintain psychological safety. You must have trust in everyone in the group in order to be able to go out on a limb.

    Framed this way, what it means to be able to take risks becomes a little more concrete. Because we know that trust is earned by showing three thingsAbility, Integrity, and Benevolencealthough only benevolence is truly a deal breaker when it comes down to it. No amount of skill or ability can make you trust someone who you dont think has your best interests at heart.

    The safety to take risks doesnt mean its now okay to do any awful thingbecause what psychological safety actually is is a commitment to treating each other charitablyin both directions.

    Cynicism vs Charity

    In a group where everyone treats each other charitably, the following will happen:

  • If you make a mistake, it wont be held against you personally.
  • If something is wrong, you can bring it up without it being used against you.
  • It wont matter where ideas come from as long as they help the team.
  • If you need help, you can ask for it without people being shitty about it.
  • When you change your mind, people will applaud your intellectual humility rather than use it against you.
  • When you make a decision, youll weigh whats going to be the best for the whole teamand the individuals on itover whats best for you.
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